Friday, September 29, 2006

How representative is democracy?

I noticed this in Comment is Free today - Making every vote count by Ben Rogers - on electoral reform. He seems wildly optimistic that New Labour are thinking of reforming the electoral system.

We need a new broom for sweeping changesAlthough there have been very minor electoral reforms in the last nine years it's still difficult to think of our democratic institutions as really being owned and controlled by the people themselves. In my view, it's going to take a far more wide ranging overhaul of our public bodies to even begin a much needed process of democratic renewal.

One of the things that irritates me about the 'respectable' electoral reform people is they want to focus on one bit of the system at a time. The House of Lords people don't want to look at the House of Commons, the PR people just want to focus on general elections and the devolution people only want to think about the regions. In fact if we can begin a process of reassessing these institutions it makes more sense to do turn it into one process rather than piecemeal reform that ends up leaving everything more or less the same but with a new logo.

Certainly representative democracy doesn't feel very representative to me. Here in Cambridge, at the last local elections, of the 32,835 votes cast the outcome was as follows;

...........38.6% of the vote 69% of the seats (29) could have been 16 seats
...........25.4% of the vote 31% of the seats (13) could have been 11 seats
...........21.4% of the vote no seats could have been 09 seats
...........12.6% of the vote no seats could have been 05 seats
...........01.7% of the vote no seats could have been 01 seat (God bless them!)

The last number is an illustration of how many seats each group *might* have received had people voted the same way under a straight PR system for the local council (which is a bit of a supposition as people tend not to vote for people they don't think will get in). As it currently stands our council is decided on an almost a winner take all basis. The Tories get over 1 in 5 votes yet don't receive even one councilor to represent those 6,000 plus people who voted for them. Can that really be right?

Here are a few suggestions to be getting on with.

i) abolish the monarchy. Let the PM be head of state for a change.
ii) scrap the House of Lords - replacing it with a second, elected chamber.

iii) proportional representation for local elections (as in Scotland next year)
iv) widening the range of government positions (both local and national) that are elected rather than appointed.

But we also need to look at the experiments in participatory democracy, like those in Latin America, that do not rely on electing someone to look after our interests but allow us to directly look after our own interests for ourselves. That's not something that can come for legislation though - that has to be created from a community and workplace level.

Its only when we're starting to reclaim democracy as a living breathing thing with a content of its own rather than a system of structures and laws will we really be on the path to creating a democratic society.


Natalie Bennett said...

Entirely agree with the general sentiments and most of the details - except for the House of Lords. It is hard to think of a decent electoral system for it that doesn't create complications, so why not use a technique with a great democratic pedigree (ancient Athens et al) - selection by lot?

This would be entirely democratic, and should produce an interesting degree of independent-mindedness.

Jim Jay said...

Hmmm, well I quite like the selection by lot idea in that it can't help but be representative. But I'm also quite taken with Billy Bragg's suggestion for a second house.

ie use the general election FPTP vote to elect the commons as now, but those votes feed into regional lists that elect the second chamber - which means you only need to vote the once, adding no complexity for the voter, but even if your candidate has no chance of being elected where you live that vote can still be part of electing the representatives you favour.

It also means the second chamber would be elected on a pr system - in an attempt to get the best of both worlds of the two electoral systems

Liam Mac Uaid said...


how did you do the diary column?

Jim Jay said...

Liam: the diary in the right hand column? I just used the template and instead of adding links I write in a date for the diary after each li

- you use br (with sharp brackets) for a line break, b for bold, li for each new bullet point.

Use webmonkey to look up any html you might want to use. Basically if you follow the way the template has been set up, by cutting and pasting but using new content you should be able to muddle through.

Good idea to save your current template in a word/txt doc first though in case it all goes horribly wrong.

Is that helpful?

Jim Jay said...

Natalie: I thought I'd better look up what the greens say about this. This is the relevant bit of the manifesto.

It calls for a specific version of PR with a bit of FPTP throw in, it calls for immediately recallable elected representatives, AND it says that Greens should be willing to step down if the eletorate tell them to NOW. Did anyone know this?

This is great "there is much work to be done in dismantling one of the most hierarchised and centralised states in the world. While this can only succeed with the active participation of communities and local councils... the key to a smooth transition will lie in the way in which Parliament surrenders its tradition of national sovereignty."

The manifesto is also for abolition of the house of lords (replacing it with a PR system)... there's more there if people want the detail, God help you.

Matt Sellwood said...

I actually put the committment to recall on one of my Green Views about a year ago. Luckily there was no mass upswelling of a movement to get me to resign, or suchlike....


troutsky said...

It sounds positively representative compared to the farce system used here in the States. Two parties, winner take all and something calledan electoral college just to make it more arcane.You can guess how well a socialist such as myself is represented.

Jim Jay said...

Well, I agree the US system is no better and also that with a presidential system its difficult to have proportionality.

But to be honest the Labour Party got less votes than the Tories in England - but because of the way the system works they got more MPs, in Cambridge we have a two party system despite the fact that more than 1 in 3 vote for someone who does not get into the council chamber

I'm not calling for a swap with the US system (shudder), but a major overhaul of democratic institutions AND a broadening of the concept of democracy to include participation - I'm sure the same goes over there.

Is there any kind of movement in the US for electoral 'reform'?