Britain is a representative democracy. This means that citizens within a country elect representatives to make decisions for them. Every 5 years in Britain we the people have the chance to vote into power those we wish to represent us in Parliament. These MP’s meet in the House of Commons to discuss matters and pass acts which then become British law.
Within the House of Commons, each elected MP represents an area called a constituency.They usually live in that constituency.
The voters in each constituency pass on the responsibility of participating in law making to this MP who, if successful within the Commons, could be re-elected by that constituency at the next general election. However, in stark comparison to direct democracy, we the people hand over the responsibility of decision making to someone else who wishes to be in that position.
For five years, MP’s are responsible to us, the electorate. In this way they are held accountable to us. If they fail to perform (or if the party has done badly during its time in office) they can be removed by the people of their constituency. In this way, the people exercise some control over their representatives every 5 years.
However, by handing to our MP’s the right to participate in decision making within the Commons, the electorate is removing itself from the process of decision making. Though MP’s have constituency clinics where the people can voice an opinion on an issue, the electorate play no part in the mechanism of decision making – that process has been handed to MP’s and the government. This is why we are not consulted on important decisions taken in our name ( decisions such as the Iraq War or the bailing out of the banks during the last financial crisis and the privatisation of the NHS in all but name), we have relinquished this right at the ballot box.
Within representative democracy, usually two types of MP’s emerge. There are those who believe that they should act and react to what the party and electorate wish – they believe that they have been elected to represent both; though an argument would be that the party wants the best for the electorate so the two are entirely compatible.
The other MP’s are the ones who believe that they should act in accordance to their conscience regardless of party and electorate stance. This gives such an MP the flexibility to ignore the wishes of both his party leadership and his constituency – therefore allowing himself to do as he/she sees fit. Is this democratic in any form?
However, is it realistic for a MP to do what his/her constituency electorate wishes all the time? If he/she always follows the wishes of the majority within his/her constituency, what happens to those in the minority? Are they condemned to five years in which their views may be heard but are not acted on? Does a representative within the boundaries of “representative democracy”, only represent the majority view and thus state that the wishes of a democratic society have been fulfilled?
The “Tyranny of the Minority” is something that pure democracy is meant to prevent.
However “The Tyranny of the Minority” is not the only concern we should have when addressing the problems of UK representative democracy.
Do our MP’s actually represent the electorates views at all? If the only chance that we have to change our chosen representative is every 5 years in a General Election or at a local by-election what happens when our representative MP’s are shown to clearly disregard our wishes, serve their own interests and not seek our opinion?
It has become increasingly clear that MP’s from all parties do not truly represent us.
The key electoral legislation passed in relation to the Westminster parliament has been a Representation of the People Act. In the lexicon of suggested contemporary reform, we have heard talk of party quotas designed to make our MPs more “representative”. This not only misses the point from frighteningly close range; it also fails to discern the glaring hypocrisy of that word: for despite five major democratisation acts over time, the Commons is as out of touch with ordinary lives as the duke of Wellington who grudgingly passed the first such legislation in 1832.
It is nowhere near enough (and probably not even relevant) to be representative: our legislators must relearn how to represent. Like many of those who see themselves as exceptional, they wish primarily to be the exception. If one asked a representative sample of Britons tomorrow who our MPs represented, far too many would say “themselves”.
One way of expanding the participation of the electorate and therefore the whole ethos of democracy would be to initiate more mechanisms whereby the public can participate, should they wish, in the decision making process. Such mechanisms could be the greater use of public enquiries and referendums. Both would allow the public the ability to participate in the complete process of examining an issue, but they would not guarantee that the public would have any say in the final decision made by government. I studied even greater options for real Direct Democracy in my last blog post here.
Our MP’s and government have been corrupted. The 2009 UK expenses scandal brought to light the scope of MPs’ use of their allowances and has led to public outrage regarding the politicians’ abuse of power. The furore that erupted over MPs’ expenses in the UK wouldn’t have merited much of a mention in countries at the bottom of Transparency International UK’s “corruption perceptions index”. The UK is pretty clean generally – it scored 7.8 out of 10 in 2011, which is worse than Scandinavian countries but better than the US (top of the table was super-clean New Zealand, and bottom, Somalia). But because of that, revelations that MPs were merrily “flipping” their residences led to genuine public revulsion, even though all but four MPs had committed no criminal offence. This says much about the inadequacy of the MP’s expenses and interest list system.
The wider context in which corruption is discovered can also have an impact on how it is viewed. MPs were found to be spending taxpayers’ hard-earned cash at the very point the credit crunch hit. The contrast was exquisite, and was played upon by the media.
The police corruption now being alleged as a result of the phone-hacking investigation has far deeper implications for democracy but it will never be as shocking to the person on the street whose indignation was pricked by tales of duck houses and moat cleaning at the public’s expense.
However, this is the type of corruption of our MP’s that although serious does not have a huge effect on their ability to represent us. What is more of a concern is the endemic corruption at the heart of our actual parliamentary democracy.
Quote of the day:
“Money and corruption are ruining the land, crooked politicians betray the working man, pocketing the profits and treating us like sheep, and we’re tired of hearing promises that we know they’ll never keep.” Ray Davies
- Direct Democracy…. using technology to empower ourselves (takeourpowerback.wordpress.com)
- Does the narrow and regressive Tory party have a death wish? | Will Hutton (theguardian.com)
- As a Tory MP, I think Russell Brand has a point. Democracy is in retreat (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)