I’ve devoted several posts to the deficiencies of “democratic” political systems and recently I’ve been reading Democracy and its Crisis by AC Grayling. Anybody with the slightest interest in the subject should take a look at it. Here is a link. It starts with a good history of how our current systems have evolved and follows up with an analysis of what is wrong with them. The emphasis is on very recent events in the UK and US, particularly the “Brexit” referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
There are certain differences between AC Grayling and me. He is a professor of philosophy with a shitload of academic qualifications and has published many books. I am unemployed, unqualified and haven’t. He has better hair than I do. Nevertheless many of his conclusions are compatible with mine and he deserves credit for that.
I have believed for a long time that a few comparatively simple reforms would quickly improve the efficiency and morality of our political systems.
Make parliamentary voting secret. This will smash the rigidity of party discipline with one blow. Every argument in favour of the secret ballot applies with even more force inside the legislature than outside it. If the party bosses cannot tell how an individual legislator has voted they are powerless to direct the process and the legislators are free to exercise their proper function: applying their minds to the question at hand and voting for what they believe is the best outcome for Joe Public. Grayling makes the excellent point that in any other workplace it would be unlawful for bribery, intimidation and blackmail to be the standard means of imposing discipline (as they undoubtedly are within political parties). Similarly, anyone who sought to dictate how an ordinary citizen should vote (in the same way that political parties do to your elected representatives) would go to jail. And let’s not forget that, under the present system, every legislator who automatically votes the party line or succumbs to the routine intimidation of party bosses is a traitor to the electorate. An elected representative has not undertaken to reflect the wishes of a particular party or even the wishes of the voters. The true function of a representative legislator has (of course) never been stated more eloquently than by Edmund Burke:
… it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Induce more people to vote. Grayling favours the Australian practice of making voting compulsory. I don’t agree with him. I understand the arguments in favour of it, especially in places like the UK which have first-past-the-post voting with all the unfairness inherent in such systems, but rather than penalise people who don’t vote, I would reward people who do. The act of voting should automatically move you into a slightly more favourable tax bracket. I don’t have enough technical knowledge to say exactly how this should be done but I’m sure there are already enough existing (if unacknowledged) links between tax records and voting records to make the process simple enough in practice.
Proportional representation. Most of the arguments that are used against it, when analysed, turn out to be arguments in its favour. “It makes coalition governments more likely!” “You mean it creates a system where parties must cooperate and compromise? Great!” “There are too many minor parties!” “You mean that the composition of the legislature actually reflects the choices made by the electorate? Terrific”. “A government might not be able to muster a sufficient majority to implement its program!” “You mean there are safeguards against the tyranny of the majority? That sounds good.”
Preferential voting has many variants but its essence is well described by this definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ” … a system of voting in which voters indicate their first, second, and lower choices of several candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority, the second choices are added to the first choices until one candidate has a majority.” Such a system avoids the iniquities of first-past-the-post voting where the candidate who scores the most votes wins and, unless the winner gets more than half the votes, most electors are dissatisfied with the outcome. The more public interest there is in the election the more likely it is that there will be many candidates and therefore the greater probability that the winner will not have a majority. Preferential voting guarantees that even if you vote for a candidate with no hope of winning your vote still has a residue of significance. Compare that to the situation of an English voter who supports the Labour Party but has the misfortune to live in a safe Conservative seat (or vice versa). Preferential voting also has the huge advantage that the candidate actively hated by the fewest electors is the most likely to win.
It is the responsibility of governments to provide, either directly or indirectly, services to their citizens. Governments have no other function or purpose . I believe that members of the executive should be restricted by law to the range of public services available to the poor. They and their families may only be treated in public hospitals; they may not own or travel in a private vehicle; their kids must attend government schools.
We must find a way to minimise the impact of all those forces that try to interfere in the direct interplay between candidates and electors: party officials, advertisers, sponsors, pollsters, newspapers and so on. To discourage these unwanted outsiders I’d suggest that the only form of electoral advertising should be public meetings either paid for by the government and attended by all candidates or paid for by individual candidates where a sign would be clearly visible to the audience saying “This meeting was paid for by a donation from x”. No television or newspaper advertisements. No telephone calls. Speak before a live audience and answer direct questions or don’t get your message across. No opinion polls. Draconian laws should be introduced to frustrate the malign influences who will be trying to thwart my proposals. For instance public meetings are likely to be disrupted by hecklers aiming to prevent their opponents from being heard. It would be a defence against a charge of heckling if the defendant could convince a court that the interruption was (a) funny; and (b) audible to three-quarters of the audience. With that exception, interference with a public meeting or pretending that “deplatforming” is a word that an adult might use should be punished severely.
Earlier I quoted Edmund Burke on the obligations of a legislator to his constituents. Alas, there aren’t many Edmund Burkes in contemporary politics but there were damn few of them in Burke’s own day. Far more typical, then and now, is the attitude exemplified by Anthony Henley, MP for an English parliamentary seat before the Great Reform Bill of 1832. (I have taken this story from a wonderful anthology entitled Scorn, compiled by Matthew Parris.) I gather that Henley, having been elected by the corporation of Southampton after bribing them, quarreled with them “about the Excise” and subsequently replied to their letter of complaint as follows:
I received yours and am surprised by your insolence in troubling me about the Excise. You know, what I very well know, that I bought you. And I know, what perhaps you think I don’t know, you are now selling yourselves to Somebody Else; and I know, what you do not know, that I am buying another borough. May God’s curse light upon you all: may your houses be as open and common to all Excise Officers as your wives and daughters were to me, when I stood for your scoundrel corporation.
We should be grateful to Tony for reminding us just how necessary the various Reform Bills were and how far we have all come under our separate constitutions. The reforms I’ve suggested may seem extravagant or fanciful but most of them will become commonplace eventually and 2018 will then seem as far away as 1832.