Mourning Democracy – the loss of Britain’s most important value

Do we live in a democracy? This is a question I regularly ask myself. Politics is a fundamental part of international relations, and while we tend to focus on the global at university, to me it is wholly necessary to understand processes at home before applying same said processes to the international.

This piece will focus less on the “power” of the press, but the new inevitably comes into it. Democracy, or ‘rule by the people‘, is perhaps the corner stone of our society, one of the key components of David Cameron’s “British values“, and an ideologies held in high esteem by the British public but to me, a lowly commentator, it seems many do not really know what democracy means.

There is, in my a opinion, a compelling argument to suggest we do not live in a democracy, but rather a society masquerading as a democracy. How can we live in a democracy when the majority of the population live within parliamentary safe seats? Using myself as an example, I come from Wiltshire, where my constituency is made up of predominantly white, middle class and older voters. Despite my rigorous campaigning in opposition, it seems my North Wiltshire constituency will be terminally held by the Conservatives, when I know for a fact that many people (mostly young) would never vote conservative.

It seems ridiculous to me that political parties can seed candidates into safe seats i.e. have MPs run in constituencies when their respective parties are almost guaranteed a win. Obviously there are cases where spanners have been thrown into the works, but on the whole this is the case. Boris Johnson’s upcoming run for MP in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a north-London Tory safe seat is a prime example of this. How can this be considered democracy? With some research, safe seats stem from the First Past the Post system here in the UK where the candidate with the most votes gets the seat. But what if there are multiple candidates and the winner receives only, say, 30% of the votes? 70% of the people are not being represented by the winning candidate. How can we say this is democracy?

This week it was reported how Tory and Labour MPs Malcolm Rifkind (himself representing in a “rock-solid Tory safe seat“) and Jack Straw were found to be accepting payments from corporations to represent their business interests in parliament. It would be foolish to think that these are the only two MPs to be doing this. I agree that MPs should be able to supplement their incomes outside of parliament, but I agree with Ed Miliband that it would be preferable for MPs to devote themselves wholeheartedly to parliament through increasing the pay of politicians. Although it may seem like they do not do much, MPs obviously have a hard and important job, and it would be a lie to say that my passionately Labour history teacher from Secondary School has not influenced me in my opinions on this controversial issues. To him, it made sense for MPs to be paid, say, a blanket amount of £300,000 and no more. This would include general pay and would cover their expenses. I hope I am not alone in thinking this would be better in general. It is not democratic for corporations to be able to by influence in the government, when trans-national corporations already command a lot of the power in government.

Many people do not vote and because of the above reasons it is not hard to understand why. Democracy in the UK is broken. I agree with David Cameron, democracy is incredibly important and is something that should be cherished, preserved and certainly not taken for granted, but what we have is not democracy. I am not attempting to suggest that I have the answers, but to me it seems the most obvious reform would be either proportional representation, where a party that wins 30% of votes, gets 30% of the seats, or alternatively a gradual shift to direct democracy, where everyone can vote directly on policies, rather than for a person to represent them.

Last year, in the wake of the bedroom tax issue, I exchanged a series of letters with my local MPs scolding him for voting for the bedroom tax, in contrast to what I felt would be a better representation of his constituencies. He gave me no discernible or credible reason for his opinions on the bedroom tax, suggesting to me he was voting purely in his own interests. Again, I must reiterate that this is not democracy. This has been seen time and time again – any scandal or issue it seems is dealt with through the personal opinions of MPs rather than that of the people they should be representing (gay marriage comes to mind).

Direct democracy avoids all of this. I’m not saying that every policy should be voted on by everyone – that is impractical and would fast become annoying, but for some issues, such as say tax, action on climate change or indeed gay marriage, everyone should be entitled to vote as these are issues that directly affect everyone. It is already utilised in Switzerland to some affect. There are obviously disadvantages, as we have learnt in IR Theory, the majority often do not know what is best for them and this would not be helped by the likes of the tabloids such as the Sun and yes, the Daily Mail which spout nonsense on a daily basis yet have such a devoted following. That being said, it can be argued that a new group of voters are emerging – voters that are more tolerant and liberal and better educated, so this in fact may become less of an issue. Similarly, perhaps this could be guaranteed by a constitution as well as the fact we would still have elected MPs for the majority of issues.

As I said above I do not know all the answers, but I do know that we are not living in what we think we are, rather, hiding behind a masquerade of democracy in which MPs are bought by corporations and thousands of votes are wasted because of a fundamentally flawed electoral system. Change is coming, I am certain. Today the Green Party released its manifesto (slightly marred by some embarrassing radio interviews) offering an alternative to a three-party Westminster and the same can be said for opposite side in the form of UKIP. This is a welcome change and something that I sincerely hope gains more momentum in the future. Democracy may be waning, but it is not lost, and I know that myself and others will continue to campaign for its revival into the future.

Miliband, Labour and Devolution

Inarguably, the Scottish independence referendum and its aftermath is the biggest news story this week; as a frequenter of both the Guardian and the Daily Mail (the perhaps most read papers on each end of the political spectrum), I can see just how important the referendum is to each paper. 4 days after the vote, both are still reporting on it. What I find interesting about their coverage, however, is the way in which it has been conducted.

Upon clicking on the Guardian homepage, I am immediately greeted by the following article: Cameron faces pressure to seal Scotland deal underneath lie a further 5 articles concerning the headline, including a Guardian view (The Guardian view on David Cameron playing politics with constitutional reform). I especially appreciate the inclusion of a ‘view’ (that is, a admittance of what the newspaper’s official stance on the issue is) and this is something I have noticed a lot over the past few weeks, as at least when you are considering the newspaper’s spin on the topic, you are aware of what they actually think.

In comparison, the Daily Mail news site greets me with a small link to the equivalent article, under a large, unflattering picture of Alex Salmond and his accompanying article, with the following headline: Miliband REJECTS English Votes for English laws and accuses Cameron of playing politics with Westminster ‘vow’ to Scotland. Without even reading the article, I can immediately tell the spin the Mail will take: anti-Labour and anti-Miliband.

I find this use of linguistics particularly interesting, with the Guardian using a straightforward, unbiased headline giving the reader a snapshot of the story, with the Mail in contrast, using a long-winded line laden with lexis and punctuation designed to incur anger.

The Mail refers to Ed Miliband constantly as ‘Mr. Miliband’ with David Cameron referred to in full. The use of ‘Mr’ can certainly be seen as belittling, which to an extent is fair enough as it is no secret that the Mail has right-wing leanings. The article constantly refers to his apparent rejection of ‘English votes for English laws’ which is actually never explicitly rejected by ‘Mr’ Miliband. This Miliband-bashing is nothing new to the Daily Mail, with an almost daily slew of slander coming his way. It is fine to not support or endorse Labour, but it is beggars belief that any paper that publishes an article entitled ‘Ed Miliband is WEIRD’ can be considered good journalism. The capital letters and sarcastic tone of writing undermines significantly Labour’s view on devolution to both Scotland – who should primarily be the focus in the political post-referendum sphere – and England.

It is obvious as to why Miliband avoids directly answering this question (should Scottish MPs have the vote on purely English issues?) as a large part of Labour’s MPs are Scottish based, yet nevertheless, I agree with the principle that Scotland’s devolution should be the government’s priority given that 45% of the Scottish population embraced independence and voted yes. This only lessens my respect for David Cameron, given his conditional and tactical addition of English devolution, alongside Scotland’s. To me, this appears as a result of Cameron’s near failure to maintain the Union, with Glasgow and Dundee voting in favour of independence, which if achieved, would have certainly seen his resignation.

English devolution is important, especially as currently the political focus is on London, but the inability of Scottish MPs to vote on English issues in Westminster would be unfair and also draw up further questions: should non-London MPs get to vote on London-centric issues and vice-versa? Similarly, how much time should be focused on London in Westminster etc. This is an obvious ploy by Cameron to reduce the influence of Labour, the main (barely) left-leaning party in parliament and leave England how the Tories would like it – right wing and conservative.

To me, this only stresses the importance of an awareness of what the papers want you to believe, and in no way am I suggesting that the Guardian is unbiased, yet in this case, I feel it offers a fairer and more comprehensive analysis of the current situation. The devolution question raises countless others, and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the coming days and weeks especially considering Cameron’s reneging on pre-referendum promises which is doing nothing to help the reputation of parliament, politicians or the Conservatives.

(Note: I appreciate the Daily Mail cannot really be considered a broad-sheet or even a well-respected publication, yet I chose it as so many people read it everyday.)