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.

Migration Myths and the EU

There has been a lot of hate thrown towards the EU this past week in the news and to be fair, it’s no surprise. I don’t expect any regular citizen was expecting an additional £1.7 billion contribution charge towards the EU and it could not have come at a worse time. It was reported this year that support for EU was at its highest level since 1991 according to IpsosMori, especially interesting considering UKIP’s success in Clacton-on-Sea.

It could be explained that in reaction to UKIP’s success at the European Parliament elections, people in response to the 1-policy party have either researched and learnt about the benefits of the EU or supported it in pure defiance. Either way this bill can only surely be negative, and that is what has been seen within the press.

According to various news sites, David Cameron delivered his most ‘embittered‘ attack on the EU yet, refusing to pay Brussels, a direct contradiction to his previous stance which was firmly pro-EU. Be it a reaction to this bill (which partly confirms UKIP’s mantra that Brussels has too much power) or simply a chance to try and regain Tory defectors, Cameron’s apparent switch to an anti-EU sentiment is dangerous. As this Mail article notes by ex-politician Ken Clarke, Cameron is wasting his time pandering to Tories who are only fuelling the public hysteria surrounding immigration by defecting to UKIP. An article in The Economist this week highlights just how bad this hysteria is becoming: ‘the average voter thinks foreign-born immigrants constitute 31% of the population well over twice the correct proportion.’ To me, this only confirms my disdain for headline grabbing papers such as the mail which bombard readers with anti-immigration articles (a search on the Mail’s homepage using CTRL+F revealed 2 articles concerning immigration – a surprising little amount).

Alongside this bill comes to EU tag-along of immigration. Having recently renewed my subscription to The Economist (thanks to a nifty student offer), I read an article entitled Immigration and Politics: The Melting Pot which considers UKIP and the importance of the EU and immigration to the party’s voters. It was interesting, yet unsurprising to me how those who are the most xenophobic are those who have had the least amount of contact with foreigners – the article cites how Londoners are among the most tolerant of immigrants, whereas interestingly, those in places such as Clacton-on-Sea are the least, where uncoincidentally, there are considerably less amounts of immigrants. To me this is where UKIP’s danger stems from, by targeting areas (especially coastal areas where social deprivation works only to exacerbate xenophobia) where there is higher xenophobic sentiment, UKIP can gain a strong foothold in UK politics (stronger than what exists today). What I find disturbing upon reading this article is the fact that these anti-foreigner voters feel immigration is one of the biggest problems faced by the UK within the EU – not EU loophole legislation that lets companies avoid tax and vice versa. This sentiment is reinforced and compounded upon by right-wing tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

I find the notion that Britain is bound by “law” to pay this bill, when no international law is actually binding. This is something we have been covering at university – what is international law and is it important? Personally, I am unsure of what I think of the EU bill. It does seem unfair to force Britain to pay more into a system that is clearly broken, just because we are doing well. However, upon reflection now I have actually put my initial thoughts into writing, I see that Britain is a key part of the EU and was a key player in the creation of its laws. When Britain joined the EU in 1973, it agreed to abide by the bounding treaties, and so it is fair enough that they should have to follow the rules they agreed to, and if it were the other way round (say France had to pay this much) would definitely not be saying now to enforcing it.

For once I may agree with Cameron, as well as Juncker. Reforms are the answer to the EU, an EU from which the UK benefits greatly both economically and socially (made all the more obvious now I am living in London). As Hobbes would note, humans group together for safety from rival powers, and to me, I do not see why the same cannot apply to states within the EU. To me, Britain’s main source of power and influence in a global scale comes from its importance and power within the EU, the world’s largest economy, and without this (as many businesses have confirmed) Britain would surely be on a rapid descent into economic turmoil, let alone a descent into complete insignificance on the global political stage.