Opinion: Why not try democracy for a change?

It has become a truism to say that interest in politics has hit an all-time low among “ordinary” voters. All parties have come up with proposed remedies, but none of these shows any sign of working. At the same time, we have recently seen in the US an example of how exciting politics can be. Why, in a country which boasts of being one of the world’s oldest democracies, should things have come to this pass?

Part of the answer is that our present political model is totally inappropriate to the contemporary scene. We have a system which in every respect, from our voting system through to the arrangement of MPs’ seating in the House of Commons, assumes confrontation between two parties opposed to each other on every issue. Yet we currently have not two but three major parties, which seem to crowd onto the centre ground, with ever fewer obvious differences of principle between them.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of obvious differences, the parties behave as if they were still driven by diametrically opposed principles. What one party proposes is, with few exceptions, immediately rubbished by the others.

The result is that most people feel a profound disillusionment with political activity, and an alienation from the posturing, as they see it, of politicians who seem to them to be driven by personal ambition rather than political principles.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, increasingly politics is seen as a career choice. It is by no means uncommon now for talented young graduates to serve for a few years as researchers or assistants to an MP, then move straight on to a safe seat. This means not only that they have no real experience of anything other than politics, but also that the skills they acquire from the start are those of the politician – the skills of presentation, of turning the question asked into the one for which one has a good answer, and all the other skills which collectively are know these days as “spin”. Is it any wonder that when such highly skilled and talented men and women talk to “ordinary” voters they all too often fail to convince people either that they are speaking from experience (they are usually not) or that they are sincere?

Add to all this the fact that, since the days of Mrs Thatcher governments have stripped away many of the powers of local government – and increasingly rely on non-elected or indirectly elected quangos to run the things that matter to people – and we are left with a situation where only at the highest level, that of Parliament, is there anything which can reasonably be described as “democratic”, in the sense that MPs are elected, and are accountable for what they do in office. (By contrast, councillors are elected, but then have their actions circumscribed by central control of their spending, meaning they are not meaningfully accountable).

How, one might ask, can there be meaningful parliamentary democracy when at all lower levels democratic structures scarcely exist?

And just to complete the picture, our electoral “system”, with its single-member constituencies and first-past-the-post voting, ensures that most people’s votes are largely a waste of time, unless they happen to live in one of the relatively small number of constituencies where there is a possibility of a seat changing hands. This in turn leads parties to concentrate on these swing seats, where a key consideration is to avoid frightening voters by sounding extreme – hence the crowding into the centre ground of politics.

So in most of the country the voters’ only experience of “democracy” is of being asked to vote, every four years or so, for parties which do not seem really interested in them (because they are concentrating on swing seats), represented by candidates whose life experiences are not like their own and who they strongly (and often rightly) suspect cannot wait to get back to London and resume their struggle for preferment in the party game.

And then we wonder why voters are disillusioned. The real wonder is that so many people still bother to vote at all.

This public disillusionment presents a golden opportunity to the first party to really take it on board and react appropriately. What would be an appropriate reaction?

Liberal Democrats have talked for years about a new approach to politics. We should now actively set out to challenge the other major parties to “break the mold” (to coin a phrase – though I feel it ought really to be “mould”)

First, we should challenge Labour and the Tories to face up to the democratic deficit. If we believe, as all parties profess to do, in democracy, let’s start talking to voters as grown-ups. Cut out the spin.

And then, let’s campaign for real democracy – a return of meaningful powers to local authorities, along with the accountability that comes from raising their own finance, through a range of possible taxes, including local income tax, local sales taxes and a property-based tax, the mix to be determined locally. And democratic control of health and education, either through direct elections to education authorities and Primary Health Care Trusts, or by bringing these under the control of local authorities.

And then, how about challenging the other parties on green issues. All major parties claim to be concerned about climate change. All parties compete to have the best policies to deal with it. But in practice, painfully little is actually achieved. Environmental concern evaporates as soon as it becomes a question of taking unpopular decisions. So the Tories berate Labour for not being green enough. But they also, given half a chance, berate them for putting up the cost of motoring. So Labour backs off from fuel price increases. The Tories for their part talk green – but Boris Johnson waters down the London congestion charge.

Why don’t we Lib Dems challenge the other parties, instead of hypocritically competing to outgreen each other, to take environmental issues out of party politics altogether. We should point out to them that we all share environmental concern – so let’s work together, agree a package of measures to be implemented by whichever party holds power at the time, and then get back to competing in the areas where we actually do have differences.

Such an approach to green issues could hardly fail to produce benefits for the party. Either it would work, in which case its proposers would get a lot of credit; or, perhaps more likely, it would not succeed, but would expose the hypocrisy of the other parties and their refusal to engage in mature politics – which might significantly increase support for the party that tried, and awareness that only through electoral reform can we get away from the stultifying political sclerosis which makes governments afraid to do anything of real significance.

But then, what do I know? I’m just a grass-roots member.

* Stephen Marshall is a Liberal Democrat member, and currently vice-chair of his local Cambridge party.

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  • I want to disagree with a couple of points:


    “It is by no means uncommon now for talented young graduates to serve for a few years as researchers or assistants to an MP, then move straight on to a safe seat.”

    Certainly not in this party. I can only think of two former researchers on the Lib Dem benches, both of whom are excellent MPs, and one of whom only has a majority of about 500.

    And while it might be fun to knock Labour and the Tories, where this is more usually the case, politics is a skill like any other. A good constituency MP is one who knows how to use the political system to benefit their constituents and causes. That can be as useful a skill as any other.

    Also, it’s a shame you feel the need to disparage those people who do work hard in research jobs for the party, often for relatively little pay. I daresay this party would be in a pretty bad way without the various “professional” researchers in Parliament, the policy unit, and the Town Halls. They work hard and are sincere in wanting to further the Liberal cause, not cynical power-mad careerists.


    On the environmental point, I think you’ll find that not all parties share the same environmental concern. Well, if Labour has environmental concerns they involve a lot more runways than mine. It is a party-political issue- with our party being more radical and more involved. Why would we want to come to a consensus with people who don’t share that commitment? The result would be watered-down policies.

    In any case, “politics” is a marketplace, indeed a battlefield, of ideas, which throws up new policies and tests ideas to destruction or success. When parties try to out-green each other, it makes the final result more green. That’s a good thing, right? And given your article is about democracy one would think you’d want more choice, not less.


    Boris’ move to reduce the scale of the congestion charge was good for the environment, as the Western extension zone gave large, wealthy, residential areas special residents’ status to drive around London on the cheap. The GLA Lib Dem rightly support scrapping the WEZ.

  • So, remind me. How did the liberal democrat parliamentary party vote on the question of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty? Or does this not count as “democracy”?

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