Monday 20 March 2023

Democratic deficits?



I remember discovering that the Duke of Wellington feared that passing the Reform Bill in the 1830s would reduce the country to ‘a mere democracy’.  For him, I suspect, ‘people-power’ sounded more like ‘mob-rule’ than ‘consensual-decisions’.  The Reform Act did not give any say to most of the people anyway. 

And, even with the universal adult suffrage which has developed since, we have a Government for which only 29% of registered voters turned out to support being able to pass legislation to require a Trade Union to act on a particular matter only if they can muster the support of more than 50% of its eligible voters.

There is the ‘West Lothian question’ about MPs from areas of the UK outside England with forms of devolved Government voting on matters which only apply within England where no devolved assembly exists.  There is the unnicknamed question of Scotland having decisions made about its non-devolved issues by a national Government which is represented by only six of its seventy-seven MPs.

It is in Northern Ireland where the term democratic deficit is in particular use at the moment.  It applies both to the present non-operation of devolved Government and to the extent to which our trading partners can apply their own law about such trade.  But there are other issues which are more overlooked.

From a Unionist point of view, a single Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) used to be the one public voice until some who feared it was compromising broke away to form the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which grew to outstrip its support. 

Once the DUP was perceived by some to be compromised by its level of power sharing, a new Traditional Unionist Vote option began to appear on ballot papers.  In the 2017 Assembly elections the DUP had 28% of the votes and TUV 3%.  In 2022 the DUP had 21% and TUV 8%. 

The DUP’s rigorous position on the Windsor Framework can only be understood with this in mind.  If it is seem to compromise further it fears that it will simply lose power for doing so.  Few in England perceive this.

From a Nationalist point of view, there is a different perception of a democratic deficit.  Those who are elected to represent Sinn Fein (SF) in the Assembly are able to take their seats there by making a comprehensive declaration about operating democratically. 

Those elected to do so in the UK Parliament are not – they must instead declare personal loyalty to the Crown.  Few in England are aware that seven UK constituencies have an MP who has not taken up his or her seat in part for this reason.

Most English voters might well feel instinctively that the DUP is culpable in sabotaging the operation of devolved Government, and that it is SF’s look out if their constituents are not represented by a voting MP at Westminster.  But the dynamic needs to be understood.

Leaving Northern Ireland aside, I went to a meeting of those in this City who want dealing with the climate crisis to be a much higher priority for the Government.  It was sold as being a place at which we’d hear about new possibilities, but actually it was merely support for a major march on Parliament which was being solicited.

Before we had finished, discussion was running into the sand about unlikely possibilities sucha s proportional representation and people’s assemblies.  What I really heard was people, some of who had abandoned extreme Extinction Rebellion tactics, simply desperate at not feeling they had a way to have their voices effectively heard.

Afterwards I engaged in a thought experiment imagining I was, say, a nurse who wanted his or her serious loss of living standards to be taken seriously, and the peril in which it put patients. 

I could vote – although, not having money for a car and a foreign holiday, I’d allowed my Driving Licence and Passport to expire, so new legislation means I’d be turned away if I simply turned up with my poll card and NHS identity card.

I could protest publically – although if I did so in a way which might upset a couple of people I could now be in trouble with the law.

I could go on strike – although this may soon be made illegal for me.

I could get desperate and do something dramatic just like the Suffragettes who chaining themselves to fences – although I might soon find myself electronically tagged and restricted as a result.

And the biggest democratic deficit of all when any well meaning  rebalancing of any of this shifts things in unexpectedly more difficult ways?  It is probably that a large proportion of the ‘demos’ don’t try to engage with the ‘kratia’ at all.  If it was mob rule the Duke of Wellington feared, he can rest easy.

Meanwhile, the photo is from a walk with a friend at Moor Farm Nature reserve near Woodhall Spa.