Last time I was in Paris I saw these beautiful, thought-provoking photographs hung on the fence around the Jardins du Luxembourg. They were displayed as part of an attempt to raise public awareness about Climate Change.
This photo, which I took, of a woman walking past them made me think about powerlessness. It’s one thing to become aware of a problem like Climate Change, but it’s another to feel that you can do much about it personally. Actually, I’m sure lots of people will tell you all kinds of things you can do, from reducing the waste you produce, to recycling more, cycling more, or eating less meat. And who’s to say these aren’t good things to do? But, the thing is, global problems need human beings to work together to tackle them. Individual, isolated actions might contribute to bigger changes, but they’re not enough. Perhaps it’s one of the defining characterises of being human – that ability to work together. We are brilliant at making connections, and having huge effects by collaborating. It can be easy to forget that, but just pause for a moment and think how many other human beings have contributed something towards you being able to sit down today and eat a meal. Start with what’s in front of you and see how many connections you can imagine. You can’t know them all, of course, but you can imagine them. Include the table and chairs, the plates and cutlery, the food…..just follow as many of the threads as you can. We don’t live alone. In isolation. We didn’t evolve that way.
At the level of society we humans have tried a huge number of ways of organising ourselves. One of those ways is democracy. We elect a small number of us and give them responsibility to solve certain problems, enact certain laws, develop particular policies. Democracy is designed to hold that minority accountable.
You could argue that one of the objectives of democracy is to achieve the greatest possible consensus in a population for a particular set of laws, practices, limits and freedoms in a society.
Sadly, many of the Western democracies run a rather simplistic “winner takes all” variety of democracy. The person elected, or the policy voted for, in such a system usually only has the support of a minority of the population.
If a representative is elected by less than 50% of the electorate, then, at best, they are representing only that minority. It is common in Western democracies for representatives to gain their positions with around only a third of their electorates.
69% of the electorate voted in the UK 2017, General Election, with 42% of those who voted, voting Conservative and 40% Labour. Under this system the Conservatives “won” with only 29% of the electorate voting for them. Maybe it’s easier to see this with the raw numbers. At the time, the UK electorate was 46,843,896 people, 13,636,684 of them voted Conservative, 12,877,918 voted Labour.
You can easily do your own calculations for the country you live in. I’d be surprised if the general conclusion wasn’t much the same. This isn’t a way to achieve the greatest amount of agreement amongst the greatest number of people. It’s a way to enable an elite of winners to wield power over the majority of the population.
It gets worse. Within parliaments there is a similar skewing of democracy towards rule by minority. When all that is required is a “simple majority” for a policy or law in a parliament, then the emphasis is on competition rather than co-operation. The “Brady amendment” in the House of Commons won by 317 votes to 301. A simple win, but is it reasonable to then refer to this as “the clear majority of MPs”? Or to say that “Parliament has expressed a clear wish for…..”?
Referendums are very poor tools for the creation of consensus, or even broad support. A simple binary choice referendum that achieves just over 50% in favour, and just under 50% against, is more likely to increase division than spread consensus. In the British parliament, on the issue of Brexit, the Leave side claims complete authority to act without reference to anyone on the other side, despite a referendum result that delivered only a small majority in favour amongst those who voted, and a significant minority amongst the electorate as a whole. 51.9% voted Leave, 48.1% Remain, and turnout was 72.2%. That means 17,410,742 out of 46,500,001 people voted Leave, yet politicians call that the “Will of The People”. Which begs the question – “which people”? Not the electorate, just the minority who voted Leave.
Is it any wonder that ordinary people have lost faith in this particular flavour of democracy? This loss of faith is commonly cited as one of the reasons for the rise of populism. Government by minorities in competitive systems creates a sense of distance between the elected and the electorate. And as individual politicians turn their positions into careers, those minorities evolve into elites.
So how can we make democracy work more in favour of a greater number of the population? How can we heal the divide between the governed and the governors?
There are a number of ideas around.
Limitation to years of service
A simple way to mitigate against the creation of political elites would be to limit the number of years any individual could serve on any elected body. Democratic countries which have a President already limit his, or her, possible years of service in that post. It’s usually a sign of a slide into autocracy when a particular President changes a constitution to remove that limit.
Limiting the number of years which any individual can serve in parliament would make it harder for them to become career politicians, and therefore, a separate, elite, class. It would also make it harder for lobbyists to buy political support (although there would need to be a lot more than that to tackle the issue of lobbyists. Who was it who said they’d “drain the swamp”? How’s that going?)
Proportional representation with minimum level bars
Proportional representation for all elections, with the setting of minimum levels of support necessary to be elected could also contribute to decreasing the gap between whole electorates and their representatives. With an electorate of 100,000 people, a representative could be required to achieve a minimum number of votes, say 50,000, in order to be elected. This might require more than one round of voting, as is currently the case in several European countries.
Minimum level bars could also be set within a house of parliament, demanding a higher level of consensus than the current first past the post system allows for.
Election by lot
The House of Lords in the UK is a completely unelected chamber. One possibility would be to replace it with individuals drawn by lot, in the same way as people are selected for jury duty. Such a chamber could then have the responsibility for scrutinising plans and policies of the House of Representatives (or Commons, in the UK) with the intention of achieving as much consensus as possible within practical time limits. The House of Consensus would then make recommendations back to the House of Representatives.
Two chambers – a House of Consensus and a House of Representatives
What if one chamber of government, the one of elected representatives, had the responsibility for governing on the basis of the greatest degree of consensus achievable, rather than one of governing group versus opposition working against each other in their own Party interests? The use of committee systems to explore, challenge and analyse policies could be developed further. Across the chamber working groups and a voting system requiring minimum level votes to pass laws might lead to greater consensus and less conflict.
A second chamber, elected by lot, could have the responsibility for the scrutiny of proposals, policies and laws developed by the House of Representatives, then returned there for further discussion, debate and votes.
The first chamber makes decisions and laws, the second one problem solves and makes suggestions.
In relation to referendums, a recent French article laid out the idea of a “preferendum”. To avoid the binary trap of “yes” or “no” which only perpetuates division, each question asked on the ballot paper could be presented in the form of preferences. This involves asking the voter to state a level of preference for each of a number of options. From “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. The option with the greatest overall preference is the one taken forward.
Devolution and decentralisation
This is an idea which has been around for a long time, and has been carried out to different degrees in different countries, but the basic principle seems reasonable – that the closer an elected body is to its electorate, the more easily representatives can be held to account. Again, there could be limits to the number of years any individual can serve in any elected position. At any level of government, minimum voting levels and some selection by lot can be used. So local bodies could employ such principles as well as the national ones.
Citizens assemblies have been used in a number of countries to help develop policies. These are locally gathered groups of people who debate, discuss and deliberate on an issue to put forward policy suggestions. They would probably never replace other democratic pathways but might be a useful way of broadening engagement.