Tuesday, 18 September 2007


A few things have made me think about democracy recently.

  • First the Olympic Delivery Authority are sticking to the idea that the new Olympic stadium should only be used for athletics - despite a bid from West Ham to use it as a football stadium and athletics use requiring a downsizing of the building from 88,000 to 25,000. This is my money you are spending, people. I am sure most Londoners would prefer a new full size football stadium and a billion quid to spending more money on an athletics venue. So why is the ODA allowed to flaut the wishes of the people who are paying for their project and their salaries?
  • The West Lothian Question is in the news again. Most politicians seem to think differently from most voters on this one.
  • Finally I came across a really good article in the LRB (behind a firewall I'm afraid) that points out that political arrangements evolve and that democracy in its current form might be dating fast.

The problem is that democracy has little to do with the exercise of political power by the people. The people vote for a party, then the winner does what they want regardless of the people's wishes. In extreme cases (Blair, for instance) the party leader even rides roughshod over the wishes of his own party. The only decision the people get is who to vote for once every five years or so.

Proportional representation makes the problem a little better in that coalitions are likely so governments have to be more moderate, mostly. But there is still the problem that it is politicians making most of the decisions, not the people. The model of having professional government might have made sense in the 18th century when figuring out what the people wanted was difficult and time-consuming but it is not clearly appropriate today. And professional politics encourages decisions that look good or send the right political message rather than reflect the people's wishes - like replacing Trident.

There are alternatives. We could use referendums much more. We could elect different parties for different things - a Lib Dem could be responsible for law and order, for instance; a Green, the environment; a Tory, Defence; and Labour, the economy. There would be coordination issues of course but it isn't obviously necessary to have the same party running every ministry. Or we could have a pre-emption mechanism so that any policy enough people disagreed with was put to a popular vote. If something is not done then respect for the political process will continue to decline. People are sick of their vote not counting. The good news is that it is fixable, especially given the potential to use technology for fast, easy voting. The bad news is that fixing it requires the turkeys to vote for Christmas.

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