The most telling indicator of there being a democratic deficit in the UK today is the continuing decline of voter turnout at all elections for the past 60 years. There is a growing level of general apathy towards political issues in the UK which is not just damaging to the health of a democracy but fatal. The government requires a mandate to govern, if they do not achieve popular consent then how are they representative of the people?
The last three general elections have yielded voter turnout of around 60 – 65% of the electorate, leaving a significant proportion of people who chose not to exercise their democratic right to vote. At the European Parliament elections turnout has been far lower with the last three elections yielding 24 – 39% of voters turning up to cast their ballot. The recent Police Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections have produced the lowest ever turnouts in the UK with just 14. 9%. The Prime Minister said that the PCC’s have a mandate; although it was only the turnout that was 14. % so many PCC’s will be governing with less than 10% of the vote. This incredibly low turnout illustrates just how apathetic people have become in regards to British politics, but there is also the matter of spoiled ballot papers. The total number of votes was 344,213 (excluding spoilt ballots) with the number of spoiled votes standing at more than 120,000. That means over a quarter of people who turned up to the polling stations did so for the sole purpose of spoiling the paper.
The fact that people would take time out of their lives specifically to undermine the democratic process shows just how much of a democratic deficit exists in the UK. People have become so disillusioned with traditional democracy in the UK they resort to methods such as spoiling the ballot paper to tell the government that the people will not stand for it, that voting doesn’t work, that all politicians are in it for themselves. The 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal shocked voters with the scale of MP’s dishonesty with taxpayer’s money.
Those in power felt that they were beyond reproach and despite the sudden change of heart many MP’s had over claiming expenses when the scandal came to light there are still those today that claim in excess of ? 60,000 per year. The mainstream political parties do not represent the views of many and the small parties that do will never gain power under the unfair FPTP system. People have resorted to campaigns such as the worldwide occupy movement that gained mass media coverage with their camp outside St.
Paul’s Cathedral, or the vigilante hacker group Anonymous who attack what they perceive to be unjust areas of the government. It is not just a minority of extremists who are partaking in these activities; their members are those who have been pushed to the side lines by the vast democratic deficit in the UK which has forced the common man without a voice to shout at the government via unorthodox and sometimes illegal means. Of course we mustn’t forget that not everyone can vote in the British system of democracy.
The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling holds the view of many in his party and others across the political spectrum over the debate on whether or not to extend the franchise to all. He told his fellow MP’s that they had the power to “legislate contrary to fundamental principles of human rights”. The right to vote is absolutely essential to any democracy and yet the government fears what would happen if they finally gave the right to vote to all in the UK. One of the harsh realities of the criminal justice system is that miscarriages of justice are an everyday occurrence.
Yearly over 770 convictions are overturned in the court of appeal and nearly 3,500 convictions quashed when the case proceeds from a magistrate court to a crown court. This shows just how broken the system is, and as well as being a human right giving prisoners the vote would help the government to get a better perspective on how to reform prisons to reform inmates. Membership of political parties has plummeted over the past 60 odd years and now just 1% of the population are members of a political party.
This runs parallel with less people turning out to vote, it is plain that people do not want to get involved with political parties anymore. It is not that they no longer care about governance but that they feel that the system does not work for them and that it also does not allow reform to allow it to change into a free and fair way true democracy. The increased use of referendums in the UK can be hailed as a way of helping to combat the democratic deficit by giving power directly to the people on a single highly important issue.
There have however only been 2 UK – wide referendums which shows that on matters of national importance the government is not quite as keen to hear everyone’s point of view. The electorate is rarely consulted directly via the use of referendums as opposed to more democratic countries such as Switzerland. On the rare occasion the government concedes and allow the voters a direct say, if they chose to do so they could ignore the result as referendums are not legally binding.
Power rests with Parliament and although in theory our MP’s represent their constituents’ views the government is free to pursue its own agenda once it is in power. In the AV referendum of 2011 implementation of a voting system of proportional representation was rejected. The “No” campaign was fought using a mixture of scare tactics and lies and active participation in the vote was not readily encouraged by either of the two most powerful political parties as they would stand to lose a lot under a fairer voting system.
The current system of FPTP ensures that an MP can be elected without a majority of votes which is highly undemocratic. Another undemocratic feature of British democracy that is having the status quo maintained is the unelected House of Lords. Only two countries in the world allow hereditary politicians – Lesotho and the United Kingdom. The elected representatives in the commons voted against further reform of the House of Lords despite polls continuously showing support for greater reform. From just this one example can it be said that MP’s are truly representing the people they are supposed to?
It is possible that a significantly contributing factor of this democratic deficit is the lack of political education available. The average layman does not have time to thoroughly research political issues and will get their only political news from the Metro or Evening Standard, and if the Leveson report is implemented in full it would not be a far cry to the press no longer being free. The government should be spending a great amount of effort into educating the populace on political issues as “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of us all”.
Whether intentionally or not by raising tuition fees to an inaccessible level the government has succeeded in preventing thousands of disadvantaged, but educated, students who would clamour for reform. Michael Gove has now changed the curriculum to allow citizenship lessons to be optional, thus removing all chances of political education whilst in compulsory schooling. Supporters of the UK as a thriving democracy would point to things such as devolution to say that the government is trying to be democratic and open.
The devolved assemblies even use PR instead of FPTP and they give power to people locally. It is the same problem as with referendums, whatever the assemblies pass is not binding. Westminster grants power to these devolved areas whilst retaining the right to veto their decisions. If a government so wished they could abolish the devolved assemblies completely. Devolution is just another one of the way the government tries to appear democratic while not promoting democracy.
Freedom of Information Requests (FOI) are in principle a brilliant thing as they promote transparency and accountability of the government and local authorities, but as with so many things they do not work in practice as they do in principle. In 2011 over 10,500 FOI requests were refused, so once again power remains firmly in the hands of those who hold it rather than the people. The government is only open about the things it wants to be, it still reserves the right to keep quiet. The democratic deficit is very real and present in the UK and it is greatly affecting democracy in this country.
Unless the issues which are causing this deficit are directly addressed and soon this country could very easily turn into a “democratic dictatorship” although in many ways it already is with the sweeping powers the PM has or the lack of true accountability at all levels of government. A majority of people are disillusioned not with democracy but with the archaic British political system and this disillusionment could lead from the spoiling of ballot papers to something much more serious such as civil unrest as demonstrated by the nationwide riots last year.