Democracy - What Democracy?

by Flaco

When Blair finally decided his heartland flock of country landowners were ready to re-elect him, he set the date for his 2001 general election and the tongues of the back room boys at Wapping and Westminster were instantly blistering despite being more than fifty klix from the nearest foot and mouth 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 no discernible effect on the economy or social policy.

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 states were 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. And even the most sceptical have difficulty shaking the notion that electoral participation equates to some sort of popular control.

"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 Brian Martin from the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. 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 challenged." 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 (anti-capitalists and asylum seekers are the latest in a long old line of truncheon magnets to be condemned as violent criminals). The 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 the electoral pantomime.)

Wombles spoilt for choice on election day, June 7th outside Millbank - Labour Party HQ. Pic: Guy Smallman

Local elections are in even shabbier shape when it comes to legitimate mandates. John Kiely, one of the Lib Dem councillors for the Bristol's Easton ward polled 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.

Then there is Europe. In one Sunderland ward MEPs mobilised an awe inspiring 1.5 per cent turnout for their last election. Across the South West of England less than 28 per cent of voters bothered taking the trip down the community centre to 'choose' their MEP. 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.

Politicians of all colours say they are keen to see a higher turnout - 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. Bristol West MP Valerie Davey says we are "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 the hard-won ability to 'X' the ballot, women are still pathetically un-represented 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, 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.

UK Green Party candidate Glen Vowels feels his party has gained access to people it otherwise wouldn't have by entering the electoral fray. Though admits it is "the more pragmatic" Greens who secure the top jobs and there "is a fear at the back of my mind that we could become a caricature, as Labour have." No shit Glen!

The Greens presume that it is the individual that corrupts the office of government, whereas advocates of participatory democracy say it is the other way around. As Wendy McElroy said: "You can't change government by electing politicians any more than you can prevent crime by becoming a criminal." Coathangers against car theft anyone?

Russian émigré Mikhail Bakunin believed that every government, regardless of who's 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."

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. So it's not surprising that the 2001 election saw an all-time low turnout. Speaking before the election, Professor Patrick Dunleavy, chair of policy research at the London School Of Economics predicted, correctly, that over a third of the electorate would 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." (See boxout below).

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 gangsters that steer 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 it is no wonder that recent years have seen a rise in extra-curricular political activity. The months preceding the election saw London grid-locked by both 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. 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, 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 reluctantly) ask, is the alternative?

One thing the politicians don't like but the anarchists have been doing for centuries is - no, no, not white overalls and armchair stuffing - abstaining from voting.

If it's humiliating to be ruled, they say, then how much more degrading is it to choose your masters? Abstentionists believe that voting gives elections, and the administrations they produce, a false legitimacy. Nineteenth century French abstentionists described parliamentary action as "a pell-mell of compromise, of corruption, of charlatanism and absurdities which does no constructive work". No change there then. The Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani said: "Abstentionism strips the state of the constitutional fraud with which it presents itself."

A significant minority of libertarian Britons have been skipping ballots and spoiling papers for years, and statisticians admit they are unsure how many of the eligible twelve million people who failed to vote in 1997's general election did so out of apathy or in protest. After all, people who don't want to vote are unlikely to hang round shopping precincts answering questions on voting behaviour.

"Democracy does not exist in practice," says John Burnheim in the opening to his book 'Is Democracy Possible?' "At best," he says, "we have elective oligarchies with strong monarchical elements." Burnheim goes on to explain how elections do little but legitimise the political pantomime where personalities outshine the issues.

Despite achieving full attendance in every incarnation of the national curriculum (taught in schools whose hierarchies are the very antithesis of democracy), elections and democracy are not the same thing.

So what is the alternative?

The Liberal Democrats and a few loose-tongued Labourites are big fans of electoral reform. Proportional Representation (catch it now in a European sub-state of your choice) has several forms. But, be it preferential, transferable or shut-your-eyes-and-jab-em-with-a-pencil, it's still just a choice between pre-selected careerist politicians, resulting in un-recallable, runaway government.

To belay bosses fears of 'subversive' Trade Unions running riot in the workplace, Labour introduced quorums into their 1999 Employment Relations Act. This means, workers can only get recognition as an organised bargaining group if they win a ballot supported by a minimum fifty per cent of the workforce. Needless to say, there is no move to bring quorums into mainstream politics.

Australia, and until recently Holland, get around the turnout trap with compulsory voting. Though politicians from all three main UK parties recoil from this suggestion - preferring the non-attendance of inert voter apathy, to the antagonism of serious disenfranchisement.

The Swiss have taken the referendum route. Any citizen can force a referendum on any issue under government consideration if backed by a petition of 1 per cent of the electorate, or on any issue at all, if backed by 2 per cent. This has led to quarterly referendum days. Though it is the state that sets the question, and it is the state who provide the 'information' supporting, er...'both' sides of the argument.

"It is questionable whether people can know enough to make rational decisions on the very large range of issues that have to be faced," says John Burnheim. "This point has nothing to do with the ignorance of the mob. It applies equally well to professional politicians, social scientists or any other aristocracy. It is an argument against all centralisation of decision making power."

The UK Direct Democracy Campaign back a system of electronic voting for mass referendums either through interactive TV, the internet or cash-point style street machines. Though if people are disinterested enough not to vote, it is unlikely they'll participate in constant button pushing to vote on a host of issues that have no direct impact on their lives. Again Burnheim thinks this is not enough: "People would be reduced to accepting or rejecting proposals from their armchairs. There is no way in which any significant proportion could participate in framing them."

"Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic has always seemed a pointless task. I mean, how many different ways can you set up a few dozen chairs; in a circle, a pile, chop them up for life rafts. Whatever you do, sooner or later you're going to end up treading icy water in the dark" says John Jordan, a time-served activist in the British anti-roads movement, who holds little hope for electoral reform.

"The solution to such problems is usually seen as electoral politics with a new content: better candidates, new parties, fairer procedures, a better-educated electorate," says Brian Martin, who has been researching democratic alternatives. "The major complaint is seen not as the electoral system itself, but with the people who are elected and the policies they implement."

"The illusion that democracy can be assured by so-called democratic control of the state is disastrous," argues Burnheim. "The state cannot be controlled democratically. It must be abolished."

At the time of writing, John Jordan had just returned from Chiapas where he was studying the decision making processes used by the Zapatistas, a network of indigenous communities fighting, with some considerable success, for recognition in Southern Mexico. "Though they have an army, decision making is done by collective consensus during village assemblies." Consensus decisions are reached by negotiation, and the discussion only moves forward when nobody feels they need to block the consensus. It is this negotiation (apart from that conducted by the single-ideology politicians within very limited boundaries) that is missing from Western style electoral politics.

Jordan believes a model has been created in the Mexican jungle that we can all learn from. "Zapatismo has an ability to grasp change, to dissolve vertical structures of power and replace them with radical horizontality. It has the courage to demand nothing for us, but everything for everyone."

This 'roots-up' process of consensus decision making - very similar to the workings of a courtroom jury - has been emulated by activist groups for years. Well executed anti globalisation protests of tens of thousands of people, from Seattle to Melbourne to Prague have been organised with consensus reached decisions.

Large numbers of people are often accommodated by creating assemblies of delegates. Groups within the assembly or federation have autonomous control over their actions, though delegates from different groups come together to make 'decisions' that effect everyone. Unlike representatives, delegates are members of the source group (perhaps from a street or village), are beholden to them and can be recalled at any time. The danger, as various trade unions and progressive organisations have discovered, is that 'professional' delegates morph into representatives and it's rule by personality all over again.

Supporters of so-called 'strong government' argue that if decisions were left to consensus, nothing would ever get done. Tory MP Ian Bruce, told SchNews that he thinks that anything short of first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all elections would result in unthinkable outcomes on a par with having a committee installed as managing director of a company (his choice of analogy). Is it too presumptuous to say that had a workers committee been in place at West Lothian's Motorola (which closed in April 2001), Bathgate may not be heading for ghost town status today.

During a recent 'Democracy Day' held by Bristol City Council trying to 'engage' voters, every speaker banged on about 'making people vote' and how democracy started in Athens in the fifth century BC. Strangely they all forgot to mention a couple of key aspects - namely the Greeks' outright rejection of a centralised controlling state, and how they selected their decision making bodies at random.


Randomly selected courtroom juries are one of the few decision making bodies that large numbers of people still have faith in. (A faith not shared by those in government wishing to restrict access to them - judges, after all, are easier to keep on the political track). Considering the pressures put on them by the law, the lawyers and the judges, juries fair pretty well. In his book 'Is Democracy Possible?' John Burnheim proposes a comprehensive alternative to our system of elected representatives that he calls Demarchy.

Anarcho syndicalists have been promoting self organisation through popular workers and community councils for years. Realising the unlikelihood of imminent global revolution, Burnheim has tried to address the question of how to institute direct democracy in our present industrialised, corporatised and shot-between-the-eyes'd society. He suggests we get rid of politicians, bureaucracy and governments altogether, and instead replace them with decision-making groups of randomly selected citizens. "Democracy is possible only if the decision makers are a representative sample of the people concerned," he says.

Each group could address a particular need of the community - such as schooling or rail transport - within a defined locality (perhaps 10,000 perhaps 100,000 people). He calls this a decentralisation of functions. "Where decentralisation simply means centralisation on a smaller scale - bringing as many issues and powers as possible together under a single local authority - is of very dubious value," says Burnheim.

Group members could be chosen randomly from people who volunteered specifically for a group whose function concerns them. The random selection principle could easily be designed so that membership was representative in terms of sex, ethnicity, age, income and so on. There would be no deference to a higher authority, but negotiation with groups whose tasks effect their own.

Demarchy recognises that it is impossible for single bodies to make far-reaching decisions in any kind of informed way on a wide range of issues. So functional groups would have a strictly limited domain.

The legitimacy of random selection lies in regular replacement, rather than experience or popularity in the polls. Group members would serve a limited term in office, perhaps two years, then someone else would have a chance. Political wheeling and dealing would be reduced. Lobbyists would have a harder time applying pressure to decision-makers and there would be no career politics and no culture of playing for re-election. "The demarchist does not believe that there is any group of people whose capacities entitle them to a position of special or wide ranging power in the community," says Burnheim. The motivation would have to be; to be seen to be doing well. Everyone who nominated themselves, but was not selected, would be sure to scrutinise the group's performance, as would ex-members whose decisions were being overturned.

No central state would mean no central police force or army. Demarchic decisions would have to stand on their acceptability by the community. Unpopular decisions would lapse by unobservance. Unlike distant politicians, demarchic bodies would be more likely to address the underlying causes of crime, poverty and social exclusion, as the decision makers and their families are the people being directly affected. Also they aint playing 'quick-fix' for future votes. Maintaining the state's monopoly on 'legitimate' violence would be unnecessary. Burnheim argues such a decentralised state would be impossible to invade (ie no central bureaucracy to conquer would mean each individual body and community would have to be separately subdued - a tricky task, as the Romans discovered during multiple failed attempts to overcome the Welsh Celts and the Scots Picts). Its decentralised nature and internal community focus would also make a demarchic state virtually no threat to its neighbours.

The citizens' juries could call on all the expertise they wanted, and tests suggest people would be quick to grasp the issues. The Institute of Public Policy Research is one of a number of British bodies who have been conducting tests with citizens' juries for some years, using panels of 12-16 randomly selected people to address issues ranging from community safety, health service provision and decency on television. "Members of the public were willing to take part in decision-making and were capable of grasping complex issues," their report concluded. "The juries were a powerful tool for consensus building... helping participants take a wider and more objective perspective."

Similar studies have been conducted in the US, and by the University of Wuppertal, in Germany, for over twenty years, where a 500 strong randomly selected 'planning cell' was used to formulate telecommunications legislation in 1991.

New Labour are not unaware of the ability of citizens' juries, and have been cynically using their ability to address the genuine concerns of communities for "consultation" and "to gain insight" into what people want. (ie find out what people want, then legislate as you originally planned but spin your agenda so it looks like you're following public opinion). A far cry from people making their own decisions.

Burnheim is up front that his theories need to be expanded, questioned and tested. He encourages anyone interested in direct democracy to take his demarchic model, tear it apart and reconstruct it. He sees his proposal as a potential debate opener, not as a stone-set blueprint for a future utopia. Demarchy need not appear overnight and could be introduced in a piecemeal way to begin to tackle all the problems needing to be sorted from radical land redistribution, systems of tax and the rest. Is there any good reason why randomly selected citizens groups should not replace government appointed quangos, addressing such issues as pharmaceutical licensing, planning or police complaints? Surely such a jury would fair better than the bodies presently packed with financially concerned parties and industry bosses.

Electoral representative government is not working. We are coerced into acceptance of our poor democracy through threats of the 'autocratic alternative'. If you don't want Blair you gotta have Xiang Zemin. Yet this is not the case. Of course those in power, those who hold the wealth and the corporate muscle are in no hurry to look for an alternative. Big-business-as-usual is fine by them. Those peddling reform do more harm than good by dissipating any energy that could be spent addressing genuine democratic alternatives.

If we sit on our hands until those in power choose to give even a little bit of it back, we will have a long bloody wait. Maybe we should emulate India's Karnataka State Farmers who have discarded government control in favour of self-organisation. They tie politicians to trees who dare to enter their communities.

If we are to progress surely we must be ready to change, and if we want genuine democracy we must be willing to stand up and take the word back out of the mouths of the Blairs, Bushes and Sharons who have bastardised its very meaning. If we want freedom and want liberty we must be willing to try something better.

"Let us look in silence, let us learn to listen," wrote Subcomandante Marcos about how would-be-leaders must defer to the spirit and wishes of the people. "Perhaps later we'll finally be able to speak."

Who really elects the government?

In the 1997 General election, the electorate was 43.8 million, the turnout 31.2 million. Labour polled 13.5 million (43% of the vote - 30% of the total electorate - but won 67% of the seats). Despite everyone over 18 supposedly having an input in the outcome, the parties will focus their 2001 general electioneering on just a tiny fraction of voters.


It has been calculated that only 1 in 5 votes actually count. i.e. the rest are voting for outright losers, or piling 'wasted' votes onto massive majorities.

In a usual close fought election less than 10,000 votes hold the balance of power (out of 43.8 million). Even with Labour's massive lead, this figure is still less than 20,000 - however, these voters don't know who they are, and are not voting as a block.


Parties target the swinging voters in specific marginal seats - these are the ones who will win you the election. Effectively they are appealing to about 200,000 swinging voters in less than 100 seats whose majorities are under 3,000. These seats are both rural and city electorates. Currently the vast majority of these seats are of course Labour.


An all time low turnout of 64/65 per cent is expected for the 2001 election. The 35/36 per cent of no shows will be mainly young and poor people and most of them will be in the cities.

"Unemployment is less than 1 million, and politicians are cynical enough not to bother with groups that won't turn out," says Professor Dunleavy. "Young people, the jobless and homeless won't get much of a look in. Those in safe Labour seats will be neglected too, as will those in the cities."

The target voters are the suburban/countryside home owners of working age - probably families with children, in those marginal seats. Also, as the turnout falls, pensioners are being courted for the first time.

Over what?

Though the topics are big: families, education and the health service, the debate will be limited to service provision for the targeted middle class voters. Both main parties will promise the same things (mild and gradual improvement), brought about in slightly different ways.

The Tories are preparing to pull the in-or-out-of Europe card - something that only really concerns people with money (though the issue can be played on a jingoistic level).

Labour will talk up the economy (but again, low inflation is of most interest to people with money. People in debt benefit from inflation). As Dunleavy says: "Labour's help to the poor has been very subtle. You can see it in the statistics, but you'd be hard pushed to see it in daily life." However, for the rich, there is also the spectre of US style economic downturn looming, so the Government may play the economy down.

Pensions and pensioners (in Gordon Brown's last budget, but absent from Labour's 97 manifesto) are featuring for the first time. Old people are more likely to vote.

"There is a danger in the UK," says Professor Dunleavy. "That we'll end up with a system like America, where only the middle classes vote and the poor don't participate at all."