Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Democracy, how far we have traveled (backwards)
The meaning of the word democracy is demos which means people and kratos which means power. The Greeks who gave us the root of our modern democracies had no political parties and the legislation was passed by a simple majority of the citizens who turned up to debate and vote. It was simple direct democracy. The Romans over threw their monarchy and became a republic with a system based upon the Greek one. They developed a constitution. It was by no means perfect as they were a two class society with the wealthy patricians only having the money required to run for office which excluded plebeians, who were the poor farmers and gate closing police officers. It evolved over time and was a fully credible political system with check and balances and the separation of powers, it was nobbled eventually but all empires that grow too large eventually become corrupted and fall, it happened in Rome, it happened in Star Wars and its bound to happen again.
This all took place thousands of years ago. So what do we have today?
Cllr Brett kindly put up a piece he mentioned in a tweet about why political parties are good and its a interesting read:
I think his basic gist is that parties are loose coalitions of like minded people that hold similar views and it makes sense for them to coalesce behind a coloured rosette. He also thinks that if you had 48 completely independently minded people trying to reconcile 48 different views then decisions would never get taken and problems would never be fixed. And also that the parties are a sort of short hand for the voters to know roughly the views of the person standing because they stand for a particular party, it isn't possible for a councillor to know and be known by thousands of people.
You can read his post in full from the link but I think the above is a pretty fair assessment of his position. My problem with the party democracies are:
If voter turnout wasn't so low then the parties would have a true mandate to act on behalf of the electorate. The majority of which haven't taken a view because they either don't care, don't approve of the parties or simply believe the parties don't listen anyway. I don't know the voter turnout for Roman elections but I would imagine it was a higher percentage that modern local council ones.
The debate to decide on what the policies are from the parties are discussed, debated and voted on behind closed doors. If a single party has a majority in a council (most do) then the public debate between the parties is just for show, the ruling party have already agreed their position and will vote for it. There are hardly ever any rebellions. In Greece and Rome, all the debates and votes were made in public, because there were no parties there wasn't organised defined groups. Probably factions and blocks but not parties behind closed doors which can and has been subverted.
If the Greeks could have independent people debate the issue and vote on proposals and amendments I'm sure 48 people could too. I doubt even the most complex problems would have 48 solutions.
There are no checks and balances in local government, none. The local government act requires a scrutiny committee to provide a robust challenge to the cabinet. The leader of the cabinet appoints the committee members and they have all already agree on policy decisions behind close doors, they never defy cabinet and everything goes through on the nod. There is no checks and balances, the cabinet and the group hold complete power and in some cases because the leader also appoints the cabinet the power goes into the hands of one person and we end up with a dictatorship in all but name.
The Romans had similar principles to the current system in the USA with proper checks and balances and separation of powers and very short terms for candidates.
Ideology of the parties gets in the way, the polices put forward can be designed to either neutralise the other side or to play to their own supports. Its more the case in national politics (the current Tory lurches to the right) but it goes on at local level to.
Politics should be about understanding what the problems and issues are, coming up with a way to fix it and then doing it. Too often its about finding problems that don't exist for political reasons, coming up with a ideologically based solution that doesn't address the non-issue and then wasting all the time and effort trying to make it work. The big society being a good example of this.
Would we be better off with a more direct democracy with out parties? Yes I think so. What is needed perversely is more councillors, open debate and transparent voting. Of course it won't happen, the parties that represent the 35% won't want to give up there power.