If Brexit has done one positive thing it has illustrated how an ill-considered referendum, based on a simple majority vote on a major constitutional issue, can produce an outcome which potentially can destroy a nation and put the future of a continent in jeopardy. It was a democratic procedure, but a very primitive one: one that, instead of fostering democracy, has become a threat to democracy itself.
What do we mean when we talk about democracy? We mean elections. Elections and democracy have become synonymous. ‘The election’ is considered the answer to everything, a ritual which is treated with great reverence, with an evangelical fervour so strong that it has become heretical to question the validity of the procedure. Democracy is inconceivable without elections, which are viewed as a precondition when talking about democracy.
But democracy, from the Greek ‘demos’ meaning a citizen living within a state, and ‘kratos’ meaning power, is more than just elections. It has to be dynamic if it is to be effective. Democracy has to change and evolve as societies change and evolve. Democracy is not an end in itself. By not evolving democratic procedures, political turmoil and instability have now become features of western democracy.
Over the past fifty years, Western democracies have changed significantly. Political discourse used to be shaped by political parties through party membership. Party membership numbers were significant. (In 1953 the Conservative party had three million members, currently it is 60,000) Today, commercial mass media sets the political agenda and shapes social consensus.
Far from being included in the democratic process the electorate have become spectators. Political parties have become part of the state apparatus and, every five years, look to the voter to top up their legitimacy. The voter casts his/her vote and is then cast away, excluded from any further participation in the democratic process. Representative democracy is now simply voting. The political party is all powerful. Our so-called representatives have become mere party delegates who put party interests before the common interest. Britain has become an elective dictatorship.
The refusal of political parties to reform party funding has further undermined our democracy. Parties are free to obtain as much funding as they like from ‘donors’. This, together with an unregulated lobbying system, has allowed vested interests and large corporations to buy influence and undermine our democratic process.
If we want a true democracy in Britain it cannot be reduced to voting alone. The rules have to be changed. Democracy has to be both inclusive and participatory; it has to be honest, transparent and protected from outside interference and influence.
A New Democracy
No manner of tinkering with the process will have any effect unless three major issues are addressed:
Firstly, political party funding has to be completely reformed. Political parties must be made to obtain the bulk of their funding from membership subscriptions, thus forcing their attention on the interests of the voter. Only donations from individual members would be allowed and would be restricted to £3,000 in any one year. State funding would apply but along the lines of the recommendations of the 2010 Kelly Report.
Secondly, lobbying must be properly regulated. All lobbying would be completely transparent and done through lobbying forums (see the Alliance manifesto).
Thirdly, Regional Assemblies have to be established in England in order for power to be devolved from the centre to the regions and to enable a truly participatory democracy throughout the Union.
This New Democracy will not be about voting alone. The election process has to be enriched by the participation of citizens in order to generate a more vital and inclusive form of democracy. We have to allow a diversity of voices to be heard. It’s called sortition, the process used by 'People's Assemblies'.
Sortition is the central principle of Athenian democracy - more efficient, more relevant than a referendum where you ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand. Sortition is effectively a structured deliberation between a random sample of citizens chosen by lot (rather like the jury system), and a selection of elected representatives. It is a highly efficient way of mutually informing both citizens and elected representatives to enable them to reach sensible and informed decisions. It also helps to raise the level of debate in the general population.
Sortition is a very simple process, which allows the democratic process to become more vital, dynamic, and most importantly, inclusive.
Sortition, a people's assembly, was successfully used in Ireland in 2012 and made an important contribution to the revision of several articles of the constitution. Members included 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens drafted by lot. The group met for one weekend a month for a year. Each member was paid for their participation. Participants listened to experts and received input from many outside sources. This inclusive, informative process allowed both elected members and citizens the opportunity to exchange views and to contribute to the government’s decision-making process.
The important thing about sortition is that it is an inclusive process. It involves the electorate who are desperate to be heard and to play their part in the democratic process. Sortition would work particularly well in a devolved Britain. Assemblies would be able to use the process to great effect.
Britain desperately needs an effective, inclusive participatory democracy. We have to change to keep democracy alive and to halt the slide into political turmoil and instability.