Democracy

The terms Right and Left wing derive from a parliamentary context. They come from the seating arrangement of representatives in the national assemblies of France at the end of the 1700s. [see the History Page above].

The idea and practice of ‘Parliament’ has almost always had a connotation of being representative of the nation at large, even in former days when only certain people in society could participate in choosing the members of that assembly.

That was the case in England, for example, for several centuries.

Today in western style democracies we regard it as essential for such parliaments to be elected by each adult over whom that parliament will have authority to make laws. In the United Kingdom that has been the position for the best part of 100 years. [Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, and those under 30 in 1928].

On both Left and Right such “universal suffrage” [one adult, one vote] is now assumed to be beyond question or debate.

But having the vote and having a decision by a majority of that vote – be it in an election or a referendum – is only part of the picture.

Democracy is more than that.

A person having a vote to decide those who are elected is of the essence.

That we must make a decision by majority verdict is also true.

But there are several other factors which must be at work for this essential mechanism of democracy to work properly.

Other factors must be present to support the principle and practice of the vote. Without them we do not have a true, a meaningful democracy ie the active consent of the governed to their government.

For people to make a choice, they must be able to make informed choices, without intimidation and in the knowledge that their choice will be fully reflected in the voting process.

There are then preconditions essential to a true democracy. Such preconditions for democracy may be summarised as:

  1. Freedom of assembly and of  expression of  views, without any fear of intimidation

  2. the Rule of Law – that is that we are all subject to the same just laws, applied equally to all and without favour

  3. open, fairly conducted and constitutionally regular elections where the integrity of the ballot is protected and where all sides have equal opportunity and liberty to express their views

  4. plurality of powerful and influential players in society, such as in the media, politics, the economy and religion

  5. civil control of the armed services and the police  in

  6. a State devoted to the principles, culture and practice of democracy

  7. a proper separation and balance between the 3 arms of government, namely the Executive, the Judiciary, and the Legislature

All seven must be working properly for democracy to function as it should.

Democratically minded people should be vigilant to ensure that none of these 7 preconditions is undermined or threatened. All 7 play an essential role for the maintenance of an open and free, democratic society where government is based on consent and where government itself is conscious of the need for on-going consent.

It should be noted that dictators and those seeking a totalitarian type control of society are keen to appear  democratic, but will attack and undermine the reality of that by their conduct and their actions.

The most oppressive and undemocratic regimes are keen to be seen as democratic. They therefore maintain “parliaments” and even elections. But their elections are not equal [eg only one party may present candidates] or the parliament has little real power in relation to the Executive.

Turkey today provides a text book example of a democracy being turned into a dictatorship by its current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There are of course different systems of representative democracy.

The United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary sovereignty; the United States and France are both republics with written constitutions and an elected Head of State, as well as elected parliaments.

Each country has developed its own form, in accordance with its own history, perception and culture. But all will endeavour to implement the principle that the active consent of the people via constitutionally regular, free and fair elections is essential to choose a government.

Today there is a continuing debate over how we elect our representatives to Parliament. That debate comes and goes, and it is one which Europeans are perhaps more concerned about than Americans.

We are talking about proportional representation – often referred to as PR

In the United Kingdom and the United States the primary chamber of parliament is elected by what is known as the first past the post system. FPTP. [The French have this too, but their two round voting system has the effect of giving a limited measure of PR].

FPTP means that the candidate who gets the most votes, is elected. The candidate does not need to get 51% or any other % of the total vote – the candidate just needs to get more votes than anybody else.

The strength of the system is that it gives an outright winner, straightaway. It also tends to give a majority of elected representatives who support the government. So the government can get its Manifesto programme passed by the legislature.

The weakness of the FPTP system is that governments so elected, rarely have an outright majority of all votes across the nation. So, for example, governments in the UK get elected on around 35% to 45% of actual votes cast [and much less if you take into account people who did not vote].

Surely a government should have at least 51% of the popular vote to have gained the consent of the electorate ?

That is the question and the debate.

The very real practical problem is that

  1. there are several different types of PR system

  2. they are all somewhat complicated to understand, and

  3. it invariably means that a coalition has to be formed between different parties who campaigned on different programmes

This last is quite serious because countries with such systems can go for months without a properly formed government.

But this debate exemplifies what happens in a democracy: there is a clash of perspectives and of principles; and the outworking of those perspectives and principles has to be considered and ultimately brought to a decision.

This question about PR shows just how difficult politics can be, and that there are usually no solutions which work perfectly, or indeed will satisfy what everyone on every side wants.

And that is the reality of politics. There are no perfect answers in an imperfect world. There are difficult choices,  usually between lesser evils.

Responsible politicians and voters in a democracy are aware of this, and behave accordingly.

Copyright © 2018 Ray Catlin. All rights reserved.