Green Party says Democracy Matters!

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MP letter response: Recall Elections

Recall elections: an important democratic addition, no matter WHO they elect.

Early Day Motion (EDM) (click here for an explanation of what this is) 1253 – Recall of Elected Representatives states:

“That this House welcomes the Coalition Agreement commitment to introduce a power of recall for constituents to recall their hon. Members; expresses its disappointment that a recall vote will only happen if the Committee on Standards and Privileges deems an hon. Member guilty of serious wrongdoing; further expresses its disappointment that the Government has no plans to introduce a power for electors to recall members of the London Assembly, local councillors or Members of the European Parliament; further welcomes instead the provisions of the Recall of Elected Representatives Bill that would permit voters to recall their elected representatives if a majority has lost confidence in them, for whatever reason, and if enough voters sign a petition to trigger a recall vote; and urges the Government to incorporate these provisions as part of its legislative programme to put power in the hands of communities and individuals.”

My MP, Stephen Williams, does not agree with this EDM. He feels that:

“such a rule would leave our representative democracy far too open to exploitation by discontented electors…”

Let’s have a look at this argument.

Firstly, Stephen starts with the assumption that representative democracy is preferable to other forms of democracy and that we don’t need to change this either. At the moment, we elect our MPs every five years, our MEPs every five years and our local councillors every two or three years. Thus, for large swathes of time, the people’s political preferences are not taken into account.

As I have argued in an earlier post, the democratic system I prefer is that of Switzerland, where citizens have regular referenda on important issues, and the key reforms that the country needs are decided by the populace, not an elite.

Stephen suggests that we should not be working towards this, but settling for representative democracy, where some people make all the decisions, whether they are popular with the majority of the population or not.

Secondly, Stephen does not define exploitation. So, let us find a definition. Exploitation can means one of two things:

  • The act of using something for any purpose.
  • The act of using something in an unjust or cruel manner.

If Stephen means the first definition, then why should the electorate NOT use recall to express their discontent with their MP? If the MP isn’t popular with the electorate, why should we not recall them?

If Stephen means the second definition, then why does he feel that popular (i.e. “majority” or “over 50%”) displeasure with an MP is “unjust or cruel”? Or is he merely thinking it would be “unjust or cruel” if a majority of HIS electorate decided they wanted to oust him before 2015?

Stephen goes on:

“[the rule]…would give such electors the opportunity to displace MPs with whom they might simply disagree politically”.

Yes, this is how democracy works, Stephen. You might have noticed that your election was a result of “soft Labour” voters protesting against such things as Iraq, Trident and tuition fees (oh, the irony!) and decamping to the Lib Dems in protest in 2005. You’re lucky that the left is generally split so that the second largest “left-ish” (and I hesitate to use the term about your party in any sense, these days) picks up the largest percentage of protest votes against Labour. Elections are where the voters decide who they agree or disagree with politically, aren’t they?

All that the recall rule will do is displace unpopular MPs without having to wait for a general election. This is more convenient for the voters (who don’t have to hang around having a lame-duck MP who they are going to vote out anyway) and is on their own terms. What’s not to like?

Stephen continues:

“Although MPs are of course elected as representatives of their constituents and must always strive to support them and lobby on their behalf, a general power of recall might jeopardise the careers of MPs who were simply unpopular.”

The “careers” of MPs, Stephen? Who do you work for, exactly? What is the “career of an MP” might up of without the electorate’s support? Nothing, Stephen – which is exactly the point. The electorate decide how long you’re an MP for, not you or anyone else.

What other reasons are there for ousting MPs, other than for being “simply unpopular”? An election is a popularity contest, Stephen! Has nobody told you this?

Stephen laments:

such a power should only be available where serious wrongdoing has been establish as this seems to be the only fair basis upon which to recall an elected representative.”

What about if 50% of your electorate don’t like you and want a change? Is that a “fair basis”, or not?

And what is “serious wrongdoing”, anyway? Do you know? Who decides what it is?

As you will have seen in my previous posts, I believe that Britain needs to move further towards direct democracy.

Stephen’s representation of a large constituency (82,503 electors, or thereabouts) is not adequate to stoke the fires of democratic participation in the electorate. He should recognise this, and also recognise that it is the public who should and must decide on his political future. The five year term limits (I personally think the US system where representatives must put their case to the electorate every two years would be preferable) that his government have instituted as the period between elections will not do for our democracy.

Recall elections must be brought in, and within this parliament which, after all, is wanting to clean up politics.

OFFICIAL GREEN PARTY POLICY

On policy website, in section “Public Administration”, sub-section “Direct Democracy and Political Rights”:

PA254 Government at all levels should be accountable to electors between elections. Accordingly, necessary legislative steps will be taken to provide for any representative’s electors to be able to petition for the recall of any elected person. Specifically, a petition signed by 40% of the registered electors within an MP’s constituency will trigger a recall by-election. Until this legislation is passed, Green MPs will voluntarily resign and trigger a by-election, if they are presented with a valid recall petition signed by 40% of the registered electors within their constituency. In the event of the elected representative having been elected by the Additional Member System, the recalled representative would be replaced by the next person on their party list not to have been elected…

PA255 It is accepted that such recall provisions as described in PA254 above may cause some difficulties under a proportional representation method of electing representatives and accordingly the Constitutional Commission will look further at this matter. Until, however, proportional representation exists for elections to all levels of government the Green Party will campaign for recall provisions under the current “First past the post” system.

Democracy.

The Landsgemeinde: Switzerland's direct democracy.

I asked in a previous blog (entitled “Kenosis”) an ending question: “So where’s the archetypal democratic society in our world?”

I had before that defined democracy:

Every voice counts, every voice is heard, and every decision is made based on what the people say and think, NOT on what the government decides without the people’s consent.

This is, more accurately, a definition of direct democracy, which Wikipedia more closely defines thus:

“Direct democracy is a form of governance in which people collectively make decisions for themselves, rather than having their political affairs decided by representatives. Direct democracy is classically termed “pure democracy”.”

The idealistic appeal of this system of governance (or, if you’re an anarchist, autonomous non-governance) is obvious, but it is my contention that there is no “pure democracy” anywhere in the world. All decisions made, whether chosen directly (through petitions, referenda, or recalls), by consensus (through thorough discussion within communities that treats minority and majority views equally) or by representation (through elected officials who represent political viewpoints), are not going to be perfect in reflecting the views of the whole population, or even the majority of the population.

Consensus may come closest, but we do not have a way to get 62 million UK citizens into one place (except if that place is the United Kingdom and there was some way of video-linking everyone!). Geography seems to be the arbiter of fair political representation, and it won’t let us have it.

Thus, and of course, grassroots democracy comes to mind. This uses the principle of subsidiarity to make the case that as much decision-making authority as practical is to be shifted to the organization’s lowest geographic level of organization. This is because the local community CAN be influenced by our actions and our ideals far more than a whole nation can. Start small, build up a consensus, and share your community’s values and activity across your city, your country and the world.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this ideal of “grass roots localism” (in contrast to the hands off “localism” that the Conservative Party now seems to believe in) means the individual makes decisions, then the household, then the street, then the neighbourhood, then the district, then the town/city, then the sub-region, then the region, then the country, then the supra-national alliance. All of these are communities in their own right, but the decisions should be made from the bottom up and as a community, not as atomised individuals.

Inevitably, however, there will be times when one person will be working harder on something than others, times when people take on responsibility for the upkeep and progress of the community’s interests, perhaps because they have a particular specialism or interest. Representative democracy, whether by election or consensus, is not an inevitability, but it does seem the most logical way of representing a whole city’s wishes in a manageable way.

This does not mean that all the worst excesses of that system, as we know it, are required. Take political parties. It is clear that the majority of communities these days are not formed of people who are members of political organisations, but by consensus within communities it is hard to rid the world of political parties – there will, it seems, always be slight divergences in belief just large enough to justify ideological positions and the creation of political parties. However, partisan interests bring some of the worst things to communities, and would it not be easier just to ban political parties?

Are communities, in themselves, non-partisan? This is akin to asking if communities are an amorphous blob of activity in one direction. The clear answer is always no, as even communities of two (e.g. married couples, perhaps) disagree about some things. Thus, partisanship begins with the individual, and is an inevitable consequence of diversity and there being, to be blunt, more than one person in the world.

However, the non-partisan system of democracy is worth bearing in mind. Independent opinions are always important, and those who stand for election as independents can raise some of the more troubling issues that political parties might not have the scope, or the all-round expertise, to deal with (even if they can’t raise much cash – regrettably). An ultimate goal would be for society to be less based around partisanship, factions and interest groups, but more around the issues themselves, and focused on those with the expertise to solve problems.

So, let’s go back to the question and look at the world. Where is there that fulfils the criteria of a democratic society? It would need to have:

  1. an emphasis on grassroots decision-making
  2. a consensus-based model for governing
  3. an emphasis, when not conflicting with 1., towards the participation of minorities or those who are not often consulted
  4. a constitution that was malleable and could be reformed easily by the people
  5. no monarch or singular person as elected head of state (even if elected)

The answer is, quite weirdly, Switzerland.

It has no monarch. It has no single head of state. Instead, it has a federal council which acts as a collective head of state. (These are not directly elected, instead elected by the Swiss Federal Assembly, the equivalent of both of our Houses of Parliament voting together.) The full renewal of a term on the council lasts for four years (I would place it at two). This is the consensus model of governing a country – each person is accountable to the other six on the Council, and the titles of President and Vice-President rotate yearly.

A referendum MUST be held on any proposed change to the constitution. A referendum can be requested for any law to be passed. If a citizen wants, they can call a referendum on a law that has already been passed.

While they don’t have a right of recall on the federal level to reject their representatives, some cantons allow recall elections to take place if you can gather enough signatures. (Cantons are the principle of subsidiarity made flesh – the local community that, in at least two cases, can still be gathered together in general popular assemblies to make decisions – proper grass-roots!)

Swiss democracy is not without its problems – with minorities and the underpriveleged not getting as much representation, and the top table being dominated by just four parties, like most other democracies – but it has constitutionally built a democratic example for us all.

Free and fair.

Please think of these places today as you cast your ballot in a free and fair election.

Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Chechnya, China, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Kashmir, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Laos, Libya, Maldives, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tibet, Togo, Transnistria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe.

Let’s make our democracy stronger and stand in solidarity in whatever way we can with those who still hunger and thirst for a time when they can have the choice of who governs them. Voting is worth it.

We are not nothing.

Not interested.

You’re all the same.

You only come around at election time when you want something from us.

I’m just making dinner.

You think you’re better than everyone else.

Go away mate.

I’m a bit busy right now.

You’re not socialists.

You don’t believe in nuclear, do you?

I haven’t really looked into it yet.

I’m not voting for them again.

You’ve got my vote.

BUT…

Whatever happens tomorrow…

We are not nothing.

Futility.

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

“Futility”, by Wilfred Owen

Kenosis.

So where should we first look for this political, this ideological, this social, and this spiritual utopia?

We look to our world, because it’s all we have. We look at societies and nations who are beginning to live and learn through the lens of idealism, not just pragmatism.

And if truth alone be our master, then we should look first to the foundations, the building blocks, the first principles of our society.

Should our utopia be founded on belief in God, or non-belief in God, or freedom to practice either?

Should our utopia be one where as many religions as possible prosper, or one where the society is united by a common spiritual pursuit?

The answers to these questions are not simple, and I think they’re only meant to be answered in practice, and not hypotheticals. If the UK government turned around tomorrow and said that their society was going to be founded from now on on belief in God, how would that make the non-believers feel, act or think? It certainly wouldn’t be inclusive, and it would be a regression of our basic freedoms.

Similarly, we cannot purposively pull everyone in the same “spiritual direction”, even if this somehow does work with the variety of beliefs of the populace.

We are unable to make the world in our own image. If you could click your fingers and make everyone in the world believe in the same first principles and foundational beliefs as you, would you do it?

In one of his songs, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne sings “we cannot know ourselves or what we’d really do, with all your power…what would you do?”

He may be talking about the President of the United States, or the Almighty, but his question is a truly interesting one.

One of my most treasured thoughts is the idea that in creating the world, God empties Self of all power. All power is handed over to the universe created, the conscious and unconscious life that has been given freely. God says “it’s yours”. In theology, it’s called kenosis (Greek for “emptying”), and it’s wrapped up with thoughts about Jesus’ earthly existence, and his death. It appears, however, in at least some form in most of the world’s religions and belief systems.

Perhaps, then, our utopian society would give up power as its first principle. But from whom and to whom?

If government is seen as analogous to God in this structure, I think that’s an error. Governments are no more and no less perfect than the totality of the people that they serve, and to say that power rests with government as a core principle is not right.

Power, let’s face it, should be with the people. But not one set of people, and definitely not the most “prestigious” people who are in positions of influence or power.

This is guiding us to one obvious conclusion: democracy.

Every voice counts, every voice is heard, and every decision is made based on what the people say and think, NOT on what the government decides without the people’s consent.

So where’s the archetypal democratic society in our world?