Reflections on Democracy

Recent political events in the UK have highlighted fundamental questions about the nature of democracy. Our Prime Minister assumed that role without anyone voting for her to be PM. Is that democratic? We are in the process of withdrawing from the European Union – perhaps the biggest political decision in decades – based on a slim majority vote of 52% to 48% on a 72% turnout. How ‘hard’ should Brexit be given there was no majority of electors willing to vote for either outcome? The Labour Party is engaged in a leadership election where some 640,000 people will decide who leads the largest opposition party in Parliament, effectively determining one of the future choices to be Prime Minister of a nation of 64 million (while Labour MPs who were elected with more than 9 million votes would prefer a different leader). In the USA, two very unpopular candidates are fighting to win the often reluctant votes of people many of whom feel forced to choose the least bad option to lead the most powerful nation on earth. In effect that decision will be made by a small minority of voters in one or two swing states. The winner does not even necessarily need to get more votes than the loser!

In 2000, Bush won with fewer public votes than Gore but with a majority of Electoral College votes thanks to a controversial count in Florida. In the UK 2010 general election, Labour came second with 29% of the votes nationally and got 258 seats in parliament, while the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the votes and 57 seats and ended up in Government. In 2015 the Conservatives gained an overall majority of seats with 36.9% of the votes. The SNP got 57 seats with 1,454,436 votes while the Green Party got one seat with 1,157,613 and UKIP got one seat with 3,881,099. I can certainly see the challenges of a more proportional system but there can be little doubt that it would be more democratic.

But what worries me even more than the absurdities of our non-proportional electoral system is that the winners seem to think their minority of votes gives them the right to advance policies that take no account of the fact that most people , even among those who voted, voted for another party! We have a winner-takes-all oppositional political system, based on a mathematically dubious idea of majority rule, none of which fits very easily the democratic ideal of rule by and for the people. Surely true democracy should be a process through which the people can develop collective long term goals for their society and make progress together towards those goals. It should seek to unite rather than divide.

Today, as so often in the past, those long term goals and values seem to come to the fore in spite of, rather than thanks to, the electoral system of politics. We make social progress that gradually gains a broad consensus. Our elected representatives often respond belatedly to these changes in public mood, rather than leading them. Once society thought slavery acceptable. Subsequently we thought it was OK that only men had the vote. Until relatively recently most thought it fine to criminalise people for their sexuality. Now all those ideas have been overturned with the consent of the vast majority. These changes arose from a different kind of democracy in action – the democracy of ideas, of protest, of civic action, of mutual human endeavour to bring about change, of ordinary people changing the way they think and act and organise. There were always those who held out against these changes, and there were times when progress seemed to stall or even go into reverse, but now there are very few who would think these changes wrong. In the future, I am confident that we will look back with amazement that young people between 16 and 18 were ever denied the vote. Times change, and generally in the direction of a more liberal and a more internationalist society, even if right now there seems to be a considerable degree of resistance to that change.

The deepest sign of democracy in action is the existence of the freedom to challenge social norms, and to exert pressure on Government to bring about change. Unfortunately this freedom can be undermined very easily, even in countries that pride themselves on their democracy. McCarthyism in the US in the 1930s allowed individuals to be punished by society, without due process or evidence, for ‘un-American’ activities. When people feel afraid to express certain ideas or beliefs, which are not themselves illegal, proscribed or violent, we are in dangerous territory for democracy. When it seems acceptable to blame the ‘other’ (Jews, Muslims, immigrants, scroungers…) for our troubles, democracy is under threat. When Governments seek to restrict the ability of civil society to make representations to Government on behalf of those who may be vulnerable, excluded or discriminated against, we are in similarly dangerous territory.

Recent government proposals have sought to restrict the right of charitable organisations to represent their beneficiaries’ interests politically, either through restrictive terms in government contracts, or through legislation to control lobbying by charities and campaigning organisations. The 2014 Lobbying Act requires charities to register if they expect to spend more than £20,000 (in England) on campaigns in the period running up to an election if their activities can “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies or issues”.  This law places limits and restrictions on the ability of charities to highlight which candidates or parties support or oppose policies which are important to their beneficiaries. But surely this is information that would help the democratic process by increasing the awareness and understanding of voters as they make their decisions. At the same time new guidance seems intended to deter charities from taking legal action in pursuit of the interests of their beneficiaries. Together with continued attacks on charities in some sections of the media, one could be forgiven for seeing a conspiracy at work to prevent challenge to Government from civil society organisations. Such challenge is a vital element of genuine democracy, helping to hold the state to account on behalf of the poor and vulnerable and standing up for human rights, justice and environmental sustainability.

Democracy means a lot more than a vote once every five years which, unless you happen to live in a marginal constituency, is unlikely to make much impact. And in our globally interconnected world of instantaneous communications and social media, we cannot take a parochial approach either. Where oppression and dictatorship rule, people who believe in democratic values have a responsibility to stand up for and support those who live in poverty or are subject to abuse or violation of their rights. Again, civil society organisations like Amnesty International offer a vehicle through which all of us can be empowered to meet that challenge.

The fact that an oppressive Government may have been elected, even if the election is free and fair, does not excuse oppression and the denial of the rights of minorities to freedom of expression.  Recent events in Turkey, for example, where thousands have been arrested and held without trial, thousands more dismissed from their jobs, and media closed down, can’t be excused under the banner of democracy. Democratically elected governments may sometimes be tempted to undermine human rights standards if they seem inconvenient, but human rights go hand in hand with democracy. A state cannot be truly democratic if it violates and abuses the internationally recognised rights of its own people.

In the global sphere, the role of the United Nations is a critical part of a global democracy, codifying, upholding and monitoring human rights standards, seeking to establish goals and norms internationally which are built on democratic values and principles, and intervening directly through humanitarian and development action to support and protect those in need. Oppressive Governments may resent this international scrutiny but I believe the relevance and importance of the UN is greater now than ever. The world is more global and our biggest challenges, such as climate change, are ones which cannot be resolved by individual nation states alone. Like every democratic institution, the UN is imperfect and it is ultimately driven and guided by member states, many of which unfortunately act in ways that are contrary to the UN’s principles and mandate.

But all that said, electoral representative democracy remains a bedrock of democratic governance. The question then is who our parliamentarians should represent. They are selected by their parties, elected by their voters, acting on behalf of their constituents and making decisions that impact in the wider world. They must find a way to represent all these accountabilities. An MP of any party should not merely be a delegate of the party activists in their constituency, they are a representative who must act in accordance with their conscience, values and principles and should lead as well as follow social norms. They should seek to represent not only those who voted for them, but also those who voted against them or did not vote at all. If my MP represents a party I don’t belong to or vote for, they are still my MP and I hope they will still listen to my opinions and offer help for my problems if they can.

It can be hard to get our heads around the many current challenges to the liberal democratic consensus, but democracy is not about any pre-determined or prescribed political procedure or even primarily about elections or referenda.  It is about the values and principles with which we approach our lives and those around us, it is about respect for human rights and for the beliefs of others, it is about tolerance of difference and freedom of expression, it is about being able to challenge the words and actions of the powerful. The minority view is as important as the majority (it may just be a few years ahead of its time). Democracy is about how we all get along together and make decisions about our lives that can underscore public consent to the political system, because government without consent is dictatorship. Democracy is not just about Government – it is about how we run businesses and organisations too. We can legitimately seek to use our democratic voices to change the way businesses operate, at least to be accountable for their impact on society. Democracy is about the way we participate in our communities. Today democracy is also about how we choose to express ourselves online and through social media.

For me, the  preamble to the Charter of the United Nations says a lot about democratic values and how to interpret them in our daily lives:


to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and

to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and

to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples

If democracy means anything, it must be embedded in these principles of peace, human rights, dignity, equality, justice, social and economic progress, and tolerance.  In exercising our precious right to vote, it may help to ask which candidate will truly represent those ideals for the benefit of all.


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