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Democracy What Democracy?
feature by Si Mitchell 10.05.01

Voting is not an expression of power, wrote the libertarian Fred Woodworth. But an admission of powerlessness.

So Blair's finally decided the country landowners are ready to re-elect him and has set a date for June 7. The tongues of the back room boys at Wapping and Westminster are already blistering despite being more than fifty klix from the nearest cull zone, but, is this really all democracy has cracked up to be?

Somehow, having the infrequent option to 'X' a box in favour of one or other of the almost identical, single-ideology factions on offer, has become our accepted input into the democratic process - despite the result having a negligible effect on the economy or social policy. Woodworth is not alone when he says that by voting we do nothing but legitimise an illegitimate government.

Have we perhaps become too accustomed to watching our politicians and newsmen laud or condemn other nations' democratic virtue on their ability to emulate Western style elections. The founding of the modern state several centuries ago, was met with considerable resistance. People refused to pay taxes, to be conscripted or to obey laws passed by national governments.

Yet those who covet power have constantly promoted the concept that a centralised 'representative' government does, or can, serve the people.


The idea that electoral participation means popular control of government is so deeply implanted in the psyches of [people], even the most sceptical cannot fully free themselves from it, says Benjamin Ginsberg, in his book 'The Consequences of Consent'.

Voters are given the choice between tweedledum and tweedledee, and then bombarded with a variety of techniques to sway them towards one or the other, adds Professor Brian Martin from Australia's University of Wollongong. Martin, who has published extensively on the drawbacks of the electoral system, believes: The problem with voting is that the basic premises of the state are never considered open for debate, much less challenge.

He points out that all governments have a monopoly over 'legitimate' violence (with their armies, police, prisons and security services) to wage war or for internal control (Mayday's anti-capitalists are the latest in a long old line of truncheon magnets to be condemned as violent criminals). T

he same goes for taxation and the sacred status of property (under capitalism) or bureaucratic privilege (under state socialism) neither of which are up for debate.


Voting is the antithesis of debate, negotiation or consensus. Votes cannot show if voters are voting for something or against something else. They cannot express preferences between different issues, how strongly people feel about any particular one, or what they are willing to forego or pay in order to get it.

Though not trusted with any level of decision making ourselves, as voters we are expected to soundly assess all the major issues of policy and the merits of the competing parties on the back of highly-choreographed, often deliberately-misleading information spun by the doctors and filtered by corporate media. We are then expected to translate that into a multiple choice (of two) answer. We are not invited to enter the (non) debate - just to endorse the outcome.

Even by their own scoring system, the mandate of those in power is at best shaky, and at worst non-existent. Every British government since 1951 has been elected on less than half the votes cast.

New Labour's 1997 'landslide' victory polled 13 million votes - less than 44 per cent of those dropped in the box. With only 71 per cent of eligible voters turning out (the lowest for fifty years), Labour - as Thatcher did before them - managed to secure two thirds of parliament's seats backed by less than a third of those allowed to vote. (If the state thinks you are too young, insecure or has decided to jail you - you don't even get a walk on part in electoral pantomime.)


Labour's Bristol West MP Valerie Davey who romped home backed by er... a quarter of the electorate in her constituency, says she is comfortable with the circumstances of her election. They had the choice [to vote], the majority didn't. It's a free option.

Local elections are in even shabbier shape when it comes to legitimate mandates. 33 per cent turned out in Davey's hometown, for Bristol's 1999 ward elections.

I do not accept my position is illegitimate says John Kiely, one of the Liberal Democrat councillors for the city's Easton ward. Kiely polled an impressive 27 per cent of the 33 per cent turnout (even with everyone having two votes). Support from less than a tenth of the ward's electorate was enough to secure his seat. I do have concerns about low turnout, he reluctantly concedes.

Then there is the (yawn) question of Europe. In the South West of England less than 28 per cent of voters bothered taking the trip down the community centre to 'choose' their MEP (this dipped to 17 per cent in some constituencies). Under the PR system, the Tories took four of the seven seats with 42 per cent of the vote. That's 11.5 per cent for each seat - 2.8 per cent of the total possible vote for each seat. And they were the winners.


Do they feel illegitimate? Not in the slightest, says South West Conservative MEP Caroline Jackson, who compares her legitimacy to that of a Bristol City Councillor. (Interestingly, when asked how she can represent a constituency of 5.5 million people Jackson says: It's the same in the US, with congressmen.) Congressmen and Bristol City councillors - a yardstick to measure all democracies by.

However, politicians of all colours say they are keen to see a higher turnout. And why not? After all, it makes the voters feel involved in the machinations of government and less likely to question their democratic impotence. Similarly bolstering suffrage - something those in power do occasionally as a 'concession' to their 'subjects' - is a good way to make people feel empowered.

Valerie Davey feels we may be taking our votes for granted, and compares current 'voter apathy' to the sacrifices of British suffragettes or South Africa's black population. Yet, despite having this hard-won ability to 'X' the ballot, women are still pathetically unrepresented in positions of power in Britain, and little has changed in the distribution of land, wealth or opportunity in the universally-enfranchised South Africa.

Revolutionary movements can enter the electoral arena and sometimes help bring more progressive people into government, says US historian Howard Zinn. But if they sink all their energy into electoral activity they weaken their real strength, which is organised protest outside the electoral process. Concentrating energy on elections is deadly, because if you lose (as the Populists did in the US in1896), it deals a death blow to your movement.


Time after time, says Brian Martin, [so-called] radical parties have become chains to hold back the process of radical change. In 1945 Labour sailed into power on a sea of promised reforms. Did they materialise? As if! Again in 1997 Labour managed to diffuse large chunks of support for an increasingly popular environmental movement with promises of eco-friendly policies that have crossed the central reservation and are heading up the other lane of the brand new bypass.

It says something about the scope of debate that German Green Party Foreign Minister Josker Fischer's recently-exposed militant credentials have caused more of a stir in the press than the ease with which he sent bombers against civilian targets in Serbia.

Green Party candidate Glen Vowels feels his party has gained access to people it otherwise wouldn't have by entering the electoral fray. Though he admits it is the more pragmatic Greens who secure the top jobs and there is a fear at the back of my mind that the Greens could become a caricature, as Labour have.

The Greens presume that it is the individual that corrupts the office of government, whereas promoters of participatory democracy say it is the other way around. Writing in the newsletter of Freedom Press International, Wendy McElroy restated the analogy that: You can't change government by electing politicians any more than you can prevent crime by becoming a criminal. Coathangers against car theft anyone?


The Russian emigre Mikhail Bakunin, believed that every government, regardless of who is in control, is an instrument of repression. He even described Marx's envisioned dictatorship of the proletariat as the most autocratic of all regimes. However fair majority rule appears, it is to the exclusion of the minorities within society.

When cornered, Lib Dem chief whip and MP for Cornwall Paul Tyler, admits the party system severs the link between people and politicians. You just need to keep your nose clean with the party hierarchy, get yourself a safe seat, and you have a career for life. But not in his lot 'of course'. Voting statistics have enabled the parties to precision target the swing voters whose votes hold the power balance. This has removed most people from the electoral equation altogether (see boxout).

So it's not surprising that an all-time low turnout is being predicted this time around. Professor Patrick Dunleavy, chair of policy research at the London School Of Economics predicts a that over a third of the electorate will choose Corry over Tony, Billy or Charlie.

He says that yet again politicians will concentrate on a tiny fraction of voters. "Unemployment is less than one million, and politicians are cynical enough not to bother with groups that won't turn out," he says. "Young people, the jobless and homeless won't get much of a look in. Those in safe Labour seats will be neglected, as will those in the cities."

>> Boxout: In the sights: Who really elects the government?


John Kiely (Easton) and his fellow Councillor Helga Benson (Lab, St Pauls) represent wards containing Bristol's largest Asian and Afro Caribbean communities respectively. Yet, there are no non-white councillors in the chamber - or candidates on the ballot paper. Both politicians balk at the suggestion they step down in favour of a black candidate.

More and more people are concluding that the ballot box is no longer an instrument that will secure political solutions, says Tony Benn - an unlikely line coming from Britain's most institutionalised parliamentarian. But this is the case, and it's not just those 'shopping' in Oxford street on Mayday who have ditched the ballot as a tool for change.

Most policy is made and implemented by bureaucrats that aren't up for election anyway. Who can remember electing the lobbyists, the corporate bosses, the men from the OECD, OPEC, NATO, NAFTA, the WTO, IMF or any of the rest of the alphabet soup that steers policy regardless of what colour of curtains hang in the cabinet office.

No matter how much of their benefactors' money the politicians throw at the advertisers to convince us to vote one way or the other - we still end up with a smirking, besuited, Stepford-style Whitehouse puppy dog in Downing Street, who'll sit up and beg for anyone with a gold card. So is it no wonder that recent years have seen a rise in extra-curricular political activity.

In the past half year alone, London has been gridlocked by anti-capitalists seeking to distribute wealth and influence a little wider, and by the ultra-capitalist Countryside Alliance who fear their copious wealth and influence is still not enough.


Once in power, governments are released from any sort of popular control. Manifesto pledges become disposable: Labour promised reduced hospital waiting lists, then gave us waiting lists to go on the waiting lists, reduced class sizes - but then not for secondary schools, a referendum on PR, a hunting ban.

Dawn Primorolo - renowned for making policy on the hoof - even went as far as to promise a new hospital for her constituency in South Bristol. The last Tory government said it wouldn't increase taxes and would restore family values, then raised taxes 22 times, while a string of ministers caught with their pants down were forced to cut and run.

In 1979, Thatcher famously predicted 'a nation at ease with itself', before embarking on the most divisive government Britain has ever seen. (After sparking the 1981 riots, she went on to run British manufacturing into the ground, the miners out of the ground and the unions into the sea, before capping it off with the poll tax).

No matter who you vote for, the government will maintain the stranglehold the rich property owning classes have on the poor, who, in turn, are offered what? New Deal?


No party is suggesting to shelve the defence budget, no one is about to relinquish international debt repayments, resuscitate the welfare state, redistribute land and resources, or stop giving enormous tax breaks to multinational corporations. Certainly there is no ballot option for doing away with central government altogether and replacing it with a network of autonomous local direct-democracies.

Though elections may prevent any single group seizing power, centralised representative government and democracy where people are involved in the decisions that affect them are just not compatible.

Most people, and several paid-up politicians, we questioned on the subject agreed that the present system is flawed if not completely fucked. But what, they (very very reluctantly) ask, is the alternative?

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