How sound is our democracy?

The ongoing Paterson affair offers us the opportunity and motivation to analyse our fragile and imperfect version of democracy.

That MPs can, and sometimes do, receive large sums of money to represent the interests of organisations and individuals shows that, if unchecked and effectively unregulated, we are in, or on the way to being, a plutocracy and not a robust, deep democracy.

It would be more efficient to double the pay of MPs and ensure that they did not take monies from the fat wallets, individual or corporate.

The decreasing popular support of political parties makes them ever more likely to be taken over by the fat wallets, which also takes us along the path to plutocracy.

Limiting contributions to a ratio based on the minimum wage would limit this trend. Similarly, paying MPs on a ratio fixed to the minimum wage would bring a democratic facet to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

This might help mitigate the continuing inter-generational unfairness of recent decades. The “Deficit Myth” has been used to make tertiary education a commodity instead of an inter-generational gift. This has harmed tertiary education, of which there is not enough range, and impoverished recent generations who have been further harmed by rising housing costs, encouraged by HMG.

Democracy is more than an electoral system which returns a government for which the majority have not voted. One of the two parliamentary houses is not voted for.

Using the “Input-Process-Output” model, we have seen that the input is flawed, the process is vulnerable to corruption and the use of foodbanks demonstrates that at least some of the output is inefficient and unkind. While a democracy results in increased number of starving children it is demonstrably invalid.

The data on the use of foodbanks is no less relevant to an efficient and effective society than the stock market data and should be part of every financial report which includes the stock market.

Democracy depends upon a well educated and informed citizenry. We are informed by the privately owned media, bar “The Guardian”, by clearly labelled foreign media such as France 24, and by the BBC.

It is unlikely that privately owned main stream media will publish that which is against against the interests of the owners. Foreign media have their own interests which may or may not suit Britons, but they are not central to our information sources. There are concerns that the government influences “The Guardian.”

The BBC may not be as consistently objective and politically independent as some believe.

There is no democratic input to our national broadcaster. Similarly there is no democratic input to nationally critical enquiries such as that into the Grenfell disaster The BBC and big enquiries would be more efficient and more trusted if there were a democratically based “jury” with full access to information and the powers to question and make publicised comments which affected future behaviours.

Our democracy has too little real public access to information and too many starving children.

* Steve Trevathan is chairperson of Lyme Regis and Marshwood Vale Liberal Democrats.

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17 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 4th Nov '21 - 6:16pm

    We have to be careful about MPs having second jobs – there is a world of difference between an MPs being able to earn because they are MPs and being able to do a job despite being MPs. For example, it was ridiculous that Dr Philippa Whitford, the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, was criticised for performing life-saving cancer surgery over a Christmas parliamentary recess because ‘she was earning £500 per day on a second job’.

  • Interesting article. I’m guessing Steve wrote it before the news of Owen Paterson’s resignation broke – because that news seems to indicate that our democracy is actually thriving pretty well.

    The comment about democracy being dependent on a well educated and informed citizenry is spot on – and if we want to improve the functioning of democracy, I’d say that’s where the focus needs to be.

    A few quibbles though:
    Our democracy has too little real public access to information and too many starving children.” Whaaat? There is a serious problem of people living in poverty and having to use foodbanks, but I’m pretty sure virtually no-one in the UK is actually starving. That seems like a gross exaggeration. And as far as access to information is concerned – actually the Government makes available a huge amount of impartially collated data – just look at the ONS website. I think the problem is that not that many people have the statistical skills to understand all the data and the time to go through it.

    Similarly, paying MPs on a ratio fixed to the minimum wage would bring a democratic facet to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.” No it wouldn’t. It would tie MPs interests to the interests of just that portion of society who earn the minimum wage. No matter how deserving you think those people are, tying MPs interests so tightly to the interests of any portion of society to the exclusion of everyone else is never going to be good for democracy.

  • John Marriott 4th Nov '21 - 6:42pm

    Mr Paterson did the only honourable thing. However, the fact that his chums were prepared to bend the rules to get him off is more sinister. The sad fact is that, for many of our citizens, democracy doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. However, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell;
    “Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    Till it’s gone”.

  • William Francis 4th Nov '21 - 7:07pm

    Changes to MP pay will matter little when they are elected under a system that rewards winning over a tiny fraction of their constituency. When governments are formed by parties that attain pluralities of the vote with optimum geography, rather than majorities. When MPs themselves are reduced to lobby fodder by the executive branch.

    Political institutions must be turned from extractive ones to inclusive ones.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Nov '21 - 7:12pm

    @Simon R
    ““Similarly, paying MPs on a ratio fixed to the minimum wage would bring a democratic facet to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.” No it wouldn’t. It would tie MPs interests to the interests of just that portion of society who earn the minimum wage.”

    What about linking MPs’ pay to the national median full-time wage/salary? e.g. a specific multiple of the median wage – and maybe not exceeding a different multiple of the minimum wage? Note I do mean median and not mean. I’m thinking that could relate MPs’ interests better to the financial interests of British society as a whole.

    I don’t object to MPs having second jobs e.g. as Brad Barrows highlights (criticising a medic for doing their job on the side is ridiculous). As long as the other job doesn’t have a potential for conflict of interest with their role as MP. And an MP’s main income should be their salary not the other income .

  • CJ WILLIAMS 4th Nov '21 - 7:22pm

    Looking forward to Steve’s critique of Democracy within the European Union with special attention given to former members of the Soviet bloc.

  • The Guardian reports earlier today :

    “Boris Johnson has admitted receiving a free holiday at a luxurious Spanish villa linked to Zac Goldsmith, the former MP who was given a peerage and job by the prime minister. The latest update to the register of ministerial interests revealed that Johnson’s near week-long stay in the Marbella property in October was funded by the Goldsmith family.

    It did not specify how much the holiday was worth but this is likely to be declared separately in the register of MPs’ interests. The property is marketed online for rentals, reportedly for as much as £25,000 a week”.

    Nice to have friends………………………. though no doubt the rest of us will have funded the security and travel arrangements…….

  • @Nonconformistradical: Nice try on the median wage. Actually that would tie MPs interests to the interests of those earning at or just below the median wage – because if you can increase just those people’s salaries, the median wage goes up, even if no-one else’s salary changes. Admittedly it’d be quite hard to devise a policy that targets just those salaries though 🙂

    More seriously, I think the problem with tying MPs salaries to any particular metric is that it gives a vested interest in trying to push just that metric. It’s kinda the same problem Tony Blair’s Government had when it tried setting loads of quantitative targets: Organisations started working towards the targets rather than the much harder to measure concept of a better service. In this case, if you tie MPs to any measure of salaries, you could end up with an incentive to devise policies to raise salaries at the expense of – say – environmental protection or non-financial quality-of-life things.

  • Mario Caves 5th Nov '21 - 8:39am

    Don’t for one minute think that Paterson has done the honourable thing by resigning. He was forced to walk the plank to protect his party and his leader. Has he returned the bribes he received from lobbying? No. To be honourable he would have done that, and more so, wouldn’t have accepted them in the first place.
    Our unwritten democratic system is deeply corrupt, we became a plutocracy years ago.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Nov '21 - 8:41am

    @Simon R
    “Actually that would tie MPs interests to the interests of those earning at or just below the median wage – because if you can increase just those people’s salaries, the median wage goes up, even if no-one else’s salary changes.”
    That is why I also suggested linking MP salaries to a mulitple of the minimum wage – i.e. the formula for determining MP salaries would depend on both factors. So as well as being linked to a multiple of the median wage the salary would not be allowed to exceed a multiple of the minimum wage.

    Another benefit would be not needing the cost of a quango for deciding MP salaries.

  • John Marriott 5th Nov '21 - 9:09am

    @Mario Caves
    Yes, I tend to agree. I was being somewhat ironic when I used the word “honourable”. The subsequent by election should demonstrate whether the public really cares that much any more. At 10% last time, the Lib Dems have much to do. It will be interesting to see what the 20+% who voted Labour will do, not forgetting the 60+% who voted Tory last time.

  • Steve Trevethan 5th Nov '21 - 2:56pm

    Thanks to all have contributed to this conversation!

    B. B. Thank you for the important points relating to Dr. Whitford. Jobs which need continuous practice need particular consideration as does the more general point of differentiating jobs according to the societal benefits they bring.
    S.R. Actually I was writing as the U-turn news broke. I wish I could be as optimistic as you. That a P.M. should use a 3 line whip to protect dodgy political practices worries me but does not surprise.
    https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2021/11/04/a-tory-prime-minister-commands-the-absolute-support-of-his-party-until-the-moment-that-they-do-not-and-johnson-can-only-humiliate-his-mps-so-often-before-theyll-have-had-enough-of-his-corruption/
    According to the Macmillan Dictionary “starving” has several meanings which include “ill or dying because of a lack of food” and “very hungry”.
    As our participations in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were based on the citizenry not knowing enough.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Cyclone#:~:text=Operation%20Cyclone%20was%20the%20code%20name%20for%20the,of%20its%20client%2C%20the%20Democratic%20Republic%20of%20Afghanistan.
    J.M. Perhaps one our jobs is to make democracy more interesting?
    W.F. A parasitic to symbiotic spectrum or continuum is another useful tool.
    N. Thank you for good points.
    C.J.W. Hungary is on an autocratic path and seems to be taking some U.S. citizens with it, alas.
    D.R. Excellent observational skills!
    S.R. Thank you for your interesting points. Might it help if the extra paid activities of M.P.s were classified according to their social values and were limited by an income cap?
    M.C. Alas, yes we are significantly a plutocratic state.
    N. A most interesting suggestion!
    J.H. Perhaps there are enough democratic embers from which we can create a decent fire?

  • The Guardian reports tonight that Johnson will not be declaring the Marbella holiday in his register of interests….. a property normally let out at £ 25,000 per week.

    Reminds me of the occasion when Lloyd George was asked why he always included the multi Millionaire Sir Philip Sassoon in his entourage. Apparently LLG replied, “every train should have a restaurant car”.

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Nov '21 - 2:01pm

    Well spotted Mr. Raw!
    Alas, corruption is not restricted to one time or one party.
    The U.S.A. has similar problems resulting from being a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy.
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/11/05/is-this-the-end-of-the-unrefor

  • The ironic laugh is this really exposes the LibDem obsession with Electoral Reform, as being equivalent to rearranging the deckchairs…

  • Peter Hirst 14th Nov '21 - 2:52pm

    Sorry to repeat myself by saying PR is part of the solution. A plutocracy is a result of the safe seats that FPTP delivers. Some politicians will do whatever they think they can get away with.

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