Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The UK, the 2015 general election and the illusion of democracy

Some would say that England has gifted the world with two valued exports: parliamentary democracy, and football. As any Englishman would know, England "invented" the concept of football. Englishmen also know that after being the country that created the football "system", other countries over time developed the same system and evolved it, while England lagged behind, for a long time failing to update its "system" at all. We still were sticking to the same ideas from generations past, while other countries had taken the idea to the next level. his is partly why England only won the World Cup in 1966.

However, much the same could be said of parliamentary democracy, England's other "export". When foreigners understand fully how the political system in the UK works, many of them are in disbelief. This author has witnessed this reaction a number of times.

In many ways, the UK's progressive "public image" to the world abroad is in stark contrast to the grubby and backwards reality. This is one of the many ways in which the "elite" of the establishment fool those abroad, and their own electorate, into being turkeys that vote for Christmas.

England's parliament gained its power over the monarch during the events of the 17th century, when the actions of two Stewart kings (Charles I and James II) took England back into the realms of autocracy that had existed in previous centuries. The result was a much more powerful parliament, composed of combination of aristocrats, landowners and "men of means", that substantially reduced the power of the monarch. That system has remained unchanged since, and was gradually extended over the 19th century to better reflect the changes in population and society.
The idea of parliamentary democracy spread to America, resulting in the War Of Independence, and throughout the 19th century, across parts of Europe. Even by the end of the 19th century, it could be argued that Westminster was still one of the best models of democracy in the world, compared to the embryonic attempts of much more limited "democracy" across parts of Europe.

How To Waste Your Vote

Today, almost all representative democracies in the world use the system of Proportional Representation, which has existed since the early 20th century. Although there are rules that give a threshold for parties to pass in order to enter parliament, this voting system allows the fairest reflection of the electorate's will in parliament. Of course, this usually results in coalition governments, but this is accepted as the natural result of the system. Coalition government has its critics, but the electorate is used to it, and would struggle to think of an effective - and fair - alternative.
The "First Past the Post" system (or a variation of it) is still used in the English-speaking world - in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This is the same electoral system that existed more than two hundred years ago. While the franchise of the vote has extended, the electoral system remains the same.
The natural result of that FPTP system is fewer parties in parliament. To become an MP, a party needs to have more votes than any other party in that particular electoral district (called a "constituency" in the UK). Naturally, this means few parties will be able to gather that kind of support, and this get into parliament.

Advocates of this system point to the fact that it allows local representation that is not the case in PR. However, it can equally be argued that as one of the effects of the FPTP system is a large portion of "safe" seats, this puts into question the motivation of any MP who has the luck to be sitting in one. Because of the way that district boundaries can be "gerrymandered" (e.g. in the USA or the UK) to suit a party's interests, it means that a large portion of the electorate are effectively disenfranchised - their votes become "wasted" simply because of where they live. Prospective candidates in a party can easily become MPs in "safe seats" through smart politicking and networking, and then once in place, the party "favourite" has little incentive to be an effective MP for his constituents, but far more incentive to spend time in Westminster for the purposes of self-promotion. This is how the game works for many.

Many of the "safe" seats can easily become "rotten boroughs". Any voter that happens to live in a "safe" seat but doesn't support their MP's party, has no effective way to get rid of him. Only a highly-organised "tactical vote" by supporters of other parties working in unison for an agreed candidate would work - one rare example of this was the election of Martin Bell standing as in independent candidate in the 1997 election against the sitting Conservative MP in the constituency of Tatton (currently George Osborne's seat). This demonstrates the extremely high level of organisation necessary to "beat the system". Only significant (and, therefore, rare) changes in political mood - such as those in Scotland since the historic referendum last autumn - make this possible.

In this sense, the FPTP system makes the electoral process a "closed shop". With the election - and 2015 is likely to be a prime example - often decided on the votes of some tens of thousands living in "marginal constituencies" in England (in the USA, read: "swing state") - it makes a mockery of the supposed power of the electorate.  Only those who happen to live in the right areas have real power, and it is always these "swing voters" (that supposedly represent "Middle England") that decide things. This is the reason why the political parties focus so narrowly on the issues that matter to those specific voters.  The effect is not far from that which existed two hundred years ago, when it was the voters in "rotten boroughs" that had a big say in things.
In this way, the UK is really ran in much the same way it was in the 18th century. While the franchise has been extended to all adults, the electoral system basically is the same as it was in the 18th century, with the "power" of the electorate's vote highly dependent on where they live. Millions of votes are "wasted", while the established parties tussle over a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate.

And this is even without mentioning the House Of Lords - or what might better be called the "House Of Boyars". Like in the days of the Russian Empire, the House Of Lords is simply a parlour for aristocrats and political appointees, a pathetic joke on the concept of "democracy". The "House Of Lords" is a place where giving enough money to the governing party can "buy" you a place in the upper parliament of the UK. None of them are elected and - along with the theocratic Iran - is the only "parliament" in the world where theologians (i.e. bishops) have a place alongside those who have gained their place through a nod and a wink.

In more unpleasant ways, of course, there is plenty of evidence that the "establishment" has been covering up the truth for years.

A "managed democracy"?

It is no wonder that as politics in the UK has become more "professional", it has also become more of a charade separated from the reality of ordinary people's lives. The current Prime Minister is a self-evident example of that: a son of a minor aristocrat (and distant relative to the Queen), he represents the psychology of the "establishment", in spite of his protests: seemingly self-confident but actually incompetent, publicly sincere but privately scornful.

And yet, in the 2010 election, Cameron said - with a straight face - "Vote Change, Vote Conservative"(!).

Apart from the political system being a "closed shop" in many ways, in any case the way the country is ran - through the economy - is effectively a debate-free zone. The economic orthodoxy of austerity and the neo-liberal model has transformed the UK from a diverse economy with a large manufacturing base, to a largely reliant on the fortunes of the (now bloated) financial industry. Having tied the fate of the UK economy to finance, the banks then promptly crashed the economy and made the government pay the bill. And now the rest of society is "paying the bill" in the form of austerity, the shrinking of the state, and the (often dubious) selling-off of government services to an incompetent private sector.
In this way, the UK is barely operating as a country at all, and more like a corporation that should be "restructured", with its population as "employees" that can be offloaded. There are always cheaper supplies of labour, and cheaper ways of getting things done.

Lastly, there is the media, which during this election campaign has seemingly done its best to promote the virtues of Cameron and his "long term economic plan" (see above). As Cameron himself has said in the past: "There is No Alternative".

Well, we may as well all go home, then.

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