…in the UK that is.
I will take democracy to mean “implementation of the policies of the population at the government level”.
Some might think that democracy is a kind of ideal pinnacle that we’re systematically working towards, or at least someone is, and that I am just setting my threshold too high. I don’t see “implementation of the policies of the population” as futuristic ideal form of society beyond our practical abilities, do you? It’s an obvious starting point not an ambitious end point. In any case I will point out some factors that, to me, show that our society is not only way off that definition but shows no evidence of progress toward it, and in some cases has moved away from it in our lifetime.
1) The Electoral System is a Mathematical Joke
At school we were taught to “always leave rounding to the end!” At least, I was. Maybe it’s different at Eton. If you are doing some kind of arithmetic procedure you should never round up or down until the very end of the sum. This is because rounding introduces errors, errors that add up. Our electoral procedure ignores this basic maths lesson and rounds up or down at every constituency; creating rounding errors that add up. The resulting range of error is so big that the election result is effectively irrelevant. We may as well roll some dice.
Constituencies hold, by convention, about 70 000 people. The last election’s turn out was about 50% so to secure a clear majority in a constituency only about 16 000 votes are needed (assuming they need half the votes cast, which is an over estimate). The commons is about 650 chairs so 326 seats is a majority. That means that, in ideal conditions, a party can get a majority with 5.2 million votes. On the other hand, imagine that a party gets 5.2 million votes but they are all won in the minimum number of constituencies. With full turn out (in those constituencies alone) that gives them just 74 seats, meaning that 12% of the population’s votes can secure a party anything from 11% to 51% of the commons depending on turnout and geography.
Of course these are two extremes but that’s the point, the range of error is gigantic. Although, interestingly, it’s not quite big enough for small parties to quantum leap to the top and threaten the two main parties, but it does raise the serious question: are our two main parties are Heads and Tails?
Incidentally, there has been talk over recent years of the House of Commons being too big (under the banner of being too expensive). Making the Commons smaller would make this rounding error even worse because constituencies would be bigger.
2) The House of Lords
Every act passed by our parliament starts with the following (emphasis added):
Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-
For a piece of legislature to be passed, that is, for a law to be enacted, both the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual must give consent . The Lords Spiritual were given their position by virtue of being in particular positions in religious orders. No democratic process there. The Lords Temporal used to be people whose ancestors were made Lords by the Crown for some arbitrary reason, winning battles or whatever. Nowadays people can be made “Life Peer” without any democratic process. Once made a Lord it’s permanent. You can’t even retire. The only way to get out of the House of Lords is to assume a meaningless title that they reserve for that purpose that has no obligations.
Earlier I mentioned talk of the Commons being too big. The House of Lords is bigger than the Commons and I don’t think there is talk of it being reduced in size.
3) Manifestos Are Not Binding
No-one knows what MPs are really supposed to do. They have no job description. They are supposed to represent their constituency but they are under no contractual obligation to do that at all, and party politics messes with that commitment because they are expected to go along with the party position. There is no formal process to make sure MPs actually do whatever their job is supposed to be, or even what they say they intend to do. There is also very little actual tracking of what MPs do. The don’t publish time-sheets (a basic concept in all project management). They can have meetings with lobby groups often without any mechanism for is to find out. Similarly parties are under no legal obligation to even enact their own manifesto. Not only are they free from such obligations, they aren’t even obliged to tell anyone the truth about their activities or whether their policies are having the claimed effect.
The severity of this deviation from democracy is made greater by the fact that there are plenty of other situations in which people are legally required to tell the truth. The lying of politicians is taken as another one of those laws of nature that we have to live with.
MPs only have to get us to believe that they will enact our policies but once elected they are free to do whatever they can get away with and lie to our faces about it. They can deviate from their own promises and face no discipline except the threat of losing their seat (which doesn’t apply to more than half of parliament), and they can avoid losing their seats using the same non-democratic tactics mentioned. No one is tracking whether MPs parliamentary voting is reflective of their constituencies’ wishes or just their own ideology or career strategy or personal influences.
In a real democracy a politician would have to agree to a binding policy document and would be removed the instant they deviate from it. Unfortunately we have been trained to believe that democracy means accepting vague non-binding manifestos and that once we have elected someone removing them (for not delivering it) would be anti-democratic!
You might point out that ministers can’t enact laws on their own. Even with a majority there is no guarantee that a parliamentary vote will go the government’s way so it is unfair to expect MPs to always be able to enact their own manifesto. This is true but this only applies to legislature, and a majority government will likely get it’s own way with that. It raises the question though: why promise things you don’t ultimately control? The answer: because they can promise whatever they want. It’s not binding.
4) The Economy Is Not Democratic
If democracy involves consideration of factors that affect our lives then modern democracies have a blind spot: the economy. The general principals that govern the economy affect all of our lives but could not be further from democracy.
One of the reoccurring splits in modern politics is between left and right, using various names, which often reduces to a single question: should the economy be democratic? Liberalisation of markets, corporatisation, limited liability, property rights and shareholding are all attempts to make the economy less democratic. Labour unions, co-operatives, legislation, the modern public sector are attempts to make the economy more democratic. Socialism itself is the principal that working in a company gives you the right to control it.
The number of people that control the majority of the economy is tiny, and they answer to no one because the idea of real democracy is so alien to us that we never even consider it an option when it comes to the economy. The very use of the word “economy” has become a strategy to present it as a force of nature that just is with internal rules that just are, not something that even qualifies as being considered a democratic matter.
We can debate whether the economy should be democratic, but we honestly can’t claim that it is.
If you work you almost certainly do not control the company for which you work. You give your finite time on earth to a project, there is a good chance you give more time than the owner, and yet you probably have no say at all over anything that that company does. Sure you can influence, of course the owner(s) might chose to listen to you, but the legal reality is that you have no control over how your efforts effect with world. Anyone can be fired/hired without you being consulted. How the company’s resources are used, who they sell to and buy from, how they treat people, even whether the company actually functions, are all beyond your control.
Here the deviation from democracy goes beyond practice. The religion of the market has made it undetectable at a psychological level.
5) The Political Ladder
It’s important to make a distinction between how you play a game and what the game is. Some things can be achieved by playing the game differently, but some things cannot be achieved because of the way the game itself is designed. The game has to be changed.
A person has practically zero chance of becoming an MP, let alone a minister, unless they affiliate with an established party. Parties have practically no chance of forming a government without serious funding, either directly or help-in-kind like having a media empire not destroy you, or having a few shareholders not threaten to destroy an industry when you get in power.
The process of going from child to cabinet minister ensures that only people with specific beliefs and ideologies get anywhere near their final goal. This isn’t to say that politicians are being bought (they are) but rather that only the right personalities are allowed to climb the ladder. Who is designing this screening process? I suspect that this isn’t entirely by design, for example, high ranking MPs having psychopathic levels of manipulative skills and emotional detachment is more likely a happy side-effect than an intentional strategy, but who knows?
Whether you accept that this filtering process is as I describe is one thing but if you think that what I have said is some kind of conspiracy theory then consider that three quarters of our cabinet are millionaires. Or consider that the government’s perpetual commitment to subjects like Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and then note how few cabinet ministers come from any of those backgrounds. The discrepancies we see occurring in a democratic process would be an astronomically unlikely coincidence.
Remember that none of this is nature, these are systems created by us either intentionally or via absent-mindedness. The fact that many of these things are not even open to discussion raises serious doubts about whether we live in a democracy. The thing we refer to as our “democracy” is really a set of systems that exist to make us believe we live in, or are progressing towards, democracy.
 There is an exception to this in the Parliamentary Acts but they have only been used a handful of times.