21 November 2013

We Need A Better Democracy: Elections Aren't Working.

Elections are easily bought by the rich and powerful. This is something the ancient Greeks realised thousands of years before Russell Brand was born.

As inequality increases and the wealth and power of the few at the top increases, the rich have more to spend to buy their politicians,  influence public opinion, and divert even more of the wealth their way.

In the US, it is pretty much given that the candidate with the most to spend wins the election, regardless of policies.

As inequality increases, the rich have to spend more to persuade voters the system is worthwhile, but they can also afford to spend more. The ever increasing campaign funds in the US depressingly reflects the growing inequality there. It is a spiral of democratic decay as the battle for ideas is fought amongst an ever smaller and wealthier part of the electorate.

Of course, the rich would rather spend as little as possible having to buy politicians and public opinion and any mechanism which helps reduce the number of votes they need - from a more easily gerrymandered first-past-the-post system right through to outright voter suppression, even ballot rigging, they will support (covertly if necessary).

Proportional elections mean the rich have to spend even more influencing public opinion so they oppose it. It also makes it more difficult to hide the bias in the system. It can't be made too obvious that we only get a real debate of an issue when the wealthy disagree with each other. This is why the EU issue is more prominent than poverty pay.

But I have come to realise that even proportional voting is not enough. Even a more balanced, more diversely owned and properly free press and media is not enough. Even appropriately devolved government and a written constitution to protect voting rights is not enough. All of these things are widely accepted as good but none are likely to happen. Why is that?

I think it is quite simply because our parliament, even the bit that is elected, is not even close to being representative of the voting age population. Nor do most MPs have any real understanding of life outside of the elite privileged background that most of them have come from. Even those MPs that started out with good intentions get ground down by the system.

The process of MP selection generally sieves out radical idealists, even ones who would be immensely representative and popular. Even those who stick with it find the compromises needed to progress through a party system and survive the scrutiny of a rich owned media prism that is constantly distorting what you are and what you stand for, totally corrupting. It is of course much easier for radical politicians of the corporate right as the media is far more sympathetic.

(And for those who say the media's effect on politics is negligible, I say that even an average product can sell well above average if well advertised, otherwise why do companies bother spending billions advertising? And the Right benefits from an equivalent of billions of pounds of free advertising every month in the Right dominated media. I estimate this is worth 10-15 points of swing for right wing parties over left of centre parties (note: not just the Tories benefit)).

But getting back to the crux of the argument; am I just saying that Russell Brand is right? And lets remember what he is arguing. Not only that voting is ineffective, but that it is actually harmful in that it legitimises and perpetuates the current system.

I'm really not sure. Largely Brand is right. Voting is mostly ineffective and it does help legitimise the system. But at the margins small change is possible. And although it never challenges the fundamentally flawed system, small change over generations can improve lives for millions.

But is small, incremental change enough over a lifetime? And the massive improvements brought about by advances in technology are mainly going to a few. In some ways lives are worse than ever for those at the bottom of the pile.

But even Brand himself knows the system is not all bad. He has acknowledged that if all MPs were like Caroline Lucas things would be much better. But she only got elected because people voted Green. So if most didn't vote for establishment parties and candidates and changed their vote to Green, wouldn't that bring the radical change we need?

Sadly, probably not. Because as any PR voting enthusiast will tell you - "turkeys don't vote for christmas". The age old problem is once in power radical policies dissipate and the party becomes the establishment itself.

This happened to the Labour party and would happen to the Greens. Our system means change doesn't happen overnight anyway and who can wait a lifetime? On that I can agree with Brand.

There would be some improvements with a distant future Green government no doubt, but they wouldn't abolish a system that had granted them power. And on the road to power the elite would have plenty of opportunity to infiltrate and manipulate the party's ideals and aims out of all recognition to its radical roots. Just look at how disappointing the minority Green council in Brighton & Hove has been. Some progress, yes, but radical?

The city is still clogged with traffic for a start. Hardly what you would expect after 2 years in to their rule expecially after reading their manifesto about how urgent change is needed to save the environment.

Yet, I can"t see how not voting will help us either. Does anyone think the elected PCCs (police and crime commissioners) are holding back on their actions and would refuse more powers because over 90% of the electorate didn't vote for them?

Neither do councillors ever feel the need not to claim a mandate when they also were mostly elected with less than 15% support. Does the fact that the Lords received no votes at all stop them making our laws? MPs would carry on regardless of their support. In fact less voting might embolden them to ignore the masses even more than they presently do.

Also I worry that Brand's argument about not voting is dangerously close to the argument of marxists I met in the 1980s, who tried to persuade me to vote Tory because "it would speed up the coming of the revolution". Of course, considering the class background of most marxists, this was a very convenient argument.

So, on balance I am going to keep voting and hope voting for radical policies is good enough (currently the Greens are closest to my views). Fingers crossed I'm right, but good luck to Russell Brand as well. I support civil disobedience. One way or another we need to find a way to reduce inequality.

Personally I think we should populate our parliament with people chose at random from the population. It seems the only way to avoid the rich choosing our representatives for us.

But to get that sort of change would probably require the sort of risky revolution Brand is so sure is going to happen. Trouble is I am not so sure it will ever happen.

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